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Your Environment. Your Health.

Translational Research Framework

The NIEHS concept of translational research enables us to track new ideas and knowledge as they move through the translational research process. This expanded framework integrates concepts from previous frameworks, and provides a space for environmental health science.

We developed the framework to codify the distinct categories of the translational research process as applied to environmental health. Below we describe the types of environmental health science that might occur in each category, while also providing a space for clinical research.

Overview

The NIEHS Translational Research Framework involves a series of rings that represent five primary categories of translational research. Each ring includes nodes along the rings that describe the types of activities that could be included. This level of detail allows researchers to tailor the model to tell a specific translational research story. The nodes that we have included reflect potential translational research activities related to environmental health science research. Others may wish to adapt these nodes to reflect research activities specific to other fields.

Translational Research Categories/Rings

The Full Translational Research Framework represents five categories of translational research in concentric rings: fundamental questions (rectangles), application and synthesis (oval), implementation and adjustment (hexagons), practice (circle) and public health impacts (triangles). Within each ring, nodes describe the types of activities that might occur. In this diagram we combine all five rings and their respective nodes or activities, as described above, into one model of the full framework. The model is shown as a series of concentric rings. The inner ring is Fundamental Questions, the next ring is Application and Synthesis, followed by Implementation and Adjustment. The fourth ring represents the Practice category of translational research. The outside ring represents the Impacts category.

Fundamental Questions

This Fundamental Questions ring is represented by a purple ring and includes six types of experimental settings in which environmental health researchers tend to conduct their work. These settings include in vitro, ex vivo, in vivo, in silico and in situ. The last setting is group or population, which would include epidemiological type research.

The NIEHS Strategic Plan goal 1 describes fundamental research as research on the “biological processes of how our bodies function, and of the pathways and systems that are susceptible to the effects of environmental stressors. In working with examples, we found that the basic research questions NIEHS supports fall into three major categories:

  • Identification: What is it?
  • Observation: What is it doing?
  • Understanding: How does it do that and what else is going on?

Our framework recognizes that fundamental research “addresses all levels of biological organization – molecular, biochemical pathway, cellular, tissue, organ, model organism, human, and population”. We place those categories at the center of the model and connect these questions with an associated experimental setting (in vivo, in vitro, in situ, in silico, or in a population at large), AND organism (human, animal, plant, bacteria, yeast, worm, fish, other model organisms, etc.). We suggest that these three elements are intrinsically linked, and moving from one category to another represents a clear translational bridge.

This graphic shows an example of movement between two activities or nodes on the Fundamental Questions ring. This is illustrated with an arrow showing movement between a node on the ring representing an epidemiological observation in humans to a node on the same ring representing an ex vivo study using mice answering a mechanistic understanding question.

Movement around a Ring is Recognized as Translational Research

For example, if a translational research story starts with an observation from an epidemiological cohort study (observation/population/human) and then moves to a lab-based study designed to discover a mechanistic understanding of the effect of an environmental exposure using mouse tissue (understanding/ex vivo/mouse), then using our framework, the research would be recognized for crossing a translational bridge.

Application and Synthesis

The application and synthesis category is represented as a light blue ring and includes six activities that we’ve identified that environmental health researchers tend to conduct within this category. These activities are represented as nodes along the ring and include: Replication, Method Testing, Tool Testing, Intervention Pilot Testing, Research Synthesis and Other Controlled Testing.

Within the application and synthesis category, researchers conduct experiments in a structured and predictable setting to gain a deeper understanding of a process or effect. Such activities could include pilot tests of interventions, methods/approaches, new tools (e.g. exposure sensors) or other highly controlled settings. Also on this ring is the formal synthesis or integration of evidence from previous research to inform future research, risk assessment, and other decision making.

Implementation and Adjustment

The implementation and adjustment category is represented as a green ring that includes seven activities that we’ve identified that environmental health researchers tend to conduct within this category. These activities are represented as nodes along the ring and include Effectiveness or Value Analysis, Tool Validation and Optimal Use Testing, Intervention Validation, Risk Assessment, Clinical Testing, and Biomarker Screen or Assay Validation.

The implementation and adjustment category is about implementing hypotheses in real-world settings and adjusting the product (intervention, tool, method, treatment, etc.) to account for differences in different settings and populations. Examples include biomarker, screen, or assay validation, clinical testing, tool validation and use, and effectiveness testing. Much of the current work in dissemination and implementation science would fit within this ring.

Practice

The practice category is represented as a dark blue ring that includes seven activities that we’ve identified that environmental health researchers tend to conduct within this category. These activities are represented as nodes along the ring and include Individual Behaviors, Policy, Risk Management, Research Practice, Clinical Practice, and Public Health Practice.

The practice category focuses on moving established ideas into common practice. This includes using evidence to inform new guidelines for: preventing, diagnosing, or treating exposures, illness, and disease; formalizing new public health interventions; institutionalizing local, regional, state, national, or international policy practices; informing standard risk management protocols; or motivating behavior change at individual, family, group, or population levels.

Impact

The impacts category is represented as a black ring that includes four areas of impact that environmental health researchers tend to assess. These activities are represented as nodes along the ring and include Changes in Population Outcomes, Changes in Clinical Outcomes, Changes in Economic Outcomes, and Changes in Environmental Exposures.

The impact category is where we assess the broader environmental, clinical, or public health impact of a practice, guideline, or policy. For example, if a state implemented a policy to reduce air pollution researchers might want to continue their research to assess the impact of the policy on air quality and related human health outcomes such as lung function or asthma rates.

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