Environmental Factor, April 2008, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Extramural Update: A Framework for Translational Research at NIEHS
By Dennis Lang
In November 2007, the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) held its Annual Science Retreat, focusing on understanding Translational Research and the ability to bridge research findings from one domain to another. With subsequent refinement, the draft framework initiated at that retreat has become a useful evaluation metric that provides insight into the maturity and potential of a given field with regard to translation.
The goal of the 2007 retreat was to provide a framework for developing translational and interdisciplinary research related to environmentally relevant exposures and diseases. Discussions focused on generating a consensus definition of Translational Research, developing an evaluation framework for categorizing the portfolio, initiating a process for prioritizing areas that are ripe for translation and identifying approaches to stimulate interdisciplinary translational research.
In the developing the framework, NIEHS program staff identified five broad domains to categorize research in the grant portfolio (see figure). These domains included the development of emerging technologies, mechanistic understanding of the effects of environmental factors, phenotypic validation of those effects at the level of the whole organism, clinical assessment of environmental causes of disease at the human or population level, and the application of these research findings in both clinical and public health interventions. During the retreat, it became apparent to the staff that translational research is not a linear process in which investigators move directly from one level to the next in progression, ending with the application and intervention; rather, it is an overlapping cascade with researchers frequently integrating work at multiple levels in an effort to gain true understanding of the significance of their research findings.
This draft framework was used to evaluate four representative topics within the NIEHS grant portfolio - DNA repair (as a model basic science mechanism), cardiovascular disease (as a model disease), skin (as a model organ system) and arsenic (as a model toxicant). Each of these areas included projects working at all stages of the framework, with a large number of these projects focusing on interdisciplinary efforts. DERT staff concluded that the framework is helpful for understanding better the translational process of grant-funded research projects and potential applications for research findings.
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