Editor in Chief, mBio
Departments of Microbiology & Immunology and Medicine
Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New York
The concept of translational research, which aims to facilitate the application of basic scientific discoveries in clinical and community settings, is currently in vogue. While there are powerful forces driving this trend, support for translational research must be accompanied by a robust investment in basic science, which provides the essential raw material for translation and continues to represent humanity's best hope to meet a wide range of public health challenges.
“Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” —Robert Frost
No, we're not talking about ribosomes. Translational research is defined as “the process of applying ideas, insights, and discoveries generated through basic scientific inquiry to the treatment or prevention of human disease”, sometimes abbreviated as “from bench to bedside”. Although there is no universal agreement on what the word “translational” really means, there is no denying that translational research is the buzzword of the moment. In 2006, the NIH launched a Clinical and Translational Science Awards consortium of nearly 50 centers throughout the country, with a committed investment of $500 million annually by 2012 (; ). In 2009, the American Association for the Advancement of Science announced the publication of a new journal, Science Translational Medicine.
There are obvious reasons for the new emphasis on translational research. One is political. With ever-present political pressure on NIH administrators to demonstrate the tangible public benefit from the billions of dollars invested in scientific research, translational research is an easy sell—the testing of new treatments, vaccines, and diagnostic tests. Another is to fill a genuine need. A number of factors have combined to impede the flow of information between basic science and clinical medicine, perhaps most notably a lack of sufficient resources to support early-stage investigation and the challenges involved in organizing clinical trials. The new focus on translational research aims to remove these obstacles and facilitate and expedite the practical application of scientific discoveries. A third reason is an increasing impatience with the pace with which basic scientific discovery has resulted in new products and cures. Although translation of the molecular biology revolution into genetically modified crops, recombinant drugs, molecular forensics, and nascent gene therapy within a mere generation has been rapid by historical standards, the age of instant communication and fast-forward remote control buttons has created even greater expectations. For feared diseases such as cancer, AIDS, and Alzheimer's disease, progress toward prevention or cure has not been as rapid as many would like. Hence, some of the impetus toward translational research comes from an impatient public speaking through its political leaders, who are the ultimate source of support for most scientific investigation through federally supported research. Finally, there is in some scientific fields, such as immunology, an increased awareness that observations from animal models do not always precisely extrapolate to humans. For this reason, more translational research in humans is believed to be essential, despite the complexities and logistical hurdles posed by such research.
In a different era, Vannevar Bush argued strenuously to President Truman that the federal government should invest in basic science. He presciently observed the following:
“Discoveries pertinent to medical progress have often come from remote and unexpected sources and it is certain that this will be true in the future. It is wholly probable that progress in the treatment of…refractory diseases will be made as a result of fundamental discoveries in subjects unrelated to those diseases, and perhaps entirely unexpected by the investigator… . Basic research is the pacemaker of technological progress… . New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science”.
In Bush's view, basic research would be performed by academia, and applied research would be performed largely by industry and government facilities. The conceptual dichotomy of basic and applied research has proven to be an enduring one. The late Daniel Koshland viewed basic and applied science as “revolutionary” and “evolutionary, ” respectively, summarizing the difference thus:
“Basic research is the type that is not always practical but often leads to great discoveries. Applied research refines these discoveries into useful products”.
And so basic research discoveries, such as semiconductors and the structure of DNA, have revolutionized electronics and biology, making possible the laptop computer on which this essay was composed and the molecular research to which so many of us have devoted our careers.