For UND’s School of Medicine and Health, partnerships are the key to promoting breakthroughs

To do so, they must build a bridge between pure scientific researchers and clinical professionals. The School of Medicine (SMHS) has emphasized work in the field of translational research, which aims to “translate” scientific research into practical treatments. This work is being conducted through the Dakota Cancer Collaborative on Translational Activity, a clinical translational research center (CTR) that combines physicians and researchers.

“One of the things we do is through CTR, we try to fund some of those things from bench to bed,” said Marc Basson, senior associate dean of medicine and research. “We specifically do not fund individuals, we fund clinicians / non-clinician teams, and that’s by design. It’s unique to our CTR.”

This creates a forum for researchers who have a specific idea to contact a doctor and ask if it is relevant. It’s a way to keep science on track for a cure or the creation of a new medical device or equipment. It’s an idea that works both ways. Physicians who may not be able to perform a study on their own or have the technology to do so can bring their laboratory research ideas to SMHS.

Marc Basson

Marc Basson

Subscribe to newsletter for email alerts

“It has been very helpful to build those teams,” Basson said.

The idea of ​​a CTR center is not new and similar paradigms are being worked on across the country. Basson said five years ago that was not the case at UND, and the idea of ​​engaging in translational research came up to encourage “cross-talk” between scientists and doctors. SMHS has been leading a doctoral program in clinical and translational science since 2016. A multi-million dollar gift from a former SMHS researcher has established a gifted chair in translational research. The position is expected to be filled next year.

Researchers at the Dakota Cancer Collaborative Center are working to develop innovative cancer treatments across North Dakota and South Dakota. The CTR Center is funded through a National Institute of Health grant, which is being renewed, with an expanded range of diseases to be investigated. Researchers there are also able to study COVID-19 due to the national drive to deal with the virus.

Still a lengthy process

But the idea of ​​quickly promoting treatments to patients does not mean that researchers are cutting corners. It can take years to develop a new drug. Basson said seven to 10 years is normal, and it is not uncommon for researchers to spend 15 years on a potential drug. The translational partnerships established at SMHS mean that researchers do not have to publish their findings and hope that a clinician picks up the torch and sets up a clinical study. They can come up with the idea themselves.

Joshua Wynne, dean of SMHS, said mRNA coronavirus vaccines are his preferred examples of translational research heralding a breakthrough. Research into mRNA vaccines had been going on for years, he said, but when the pandemic hit, it took a remarkably short time to translate them into the Moderna and Pfizer BioNTech vaccines.

“From the time the first person was identified with (COVID-19) until a vaccine was put into a patient’s arm, there was less than a year,” Wynne said. “It has never happened in world history.”

Joshua Wynne

Joshua Wynne

Both Wynne and Basson stressed the strict nature of bringing a new treatment to a patient. It starts in the laboratory, where researchers understand the science behind a disease and what can treat it. From there, any treatment proposal goes through several approval processes.

Basson outlined the extent of how it is done for a concussion study he is working on with Essentia Health in Fargo. The idea is to see how hyperbaric chambers can be used to treat people who do not fully recover from concussion, between 10% and 20% of those who suffer from them, he said. The proposal must be approved by institutional audit boards at both Essentia and SMHS, and must then be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to use oxygen and the chamber in ways for which they are not currently approved. When this happens, the assessment boards must sign the plan again, not to mention anyone who wants to be involved in the study.

Wynne said researchers do not shy away from the thorough research process that it is necessary for both safety and belief in new treatments.

“We do not want to take any shortcuts, on the contrary, we want to do it in a robust way so that the public has confidence in the new discoveries,” Wynne said.

Ongoing investigations

Much of the translational research going on at SMHS involves cancer. Other research involves Alzheimer’s disease and a potential method of early detection. Colin Combs, an SMHS professor and president of Basic Sciences, said the pathology of this disease manifests itself in a person’s intestines and is not just localized in the brain. He looks at tissue samples from other organs for a compound, one that would allow for earlier treatment if these signs show up faster than in the brain.

Colin Combs

Colin Combs

“It’s one of the things we hope to do, and which is quite new, is to show that it does not only affect the brain, and that what is going on in these other organs may give us an insight into “how we can improve conditions in the brain,” said Combs.

UND and SMHS do not work alone. They have partnered with all major medical providers in the state, including Altru, Sanford Health, Essentia Health and Trinity Health. The universities involved include UND, North Dakota State University and the University of South Dakota.

These partnerships also extend to rural and Native American health care providers because clinical trials in these communities have traditionally been underrepresented, Basson said.

Leave a Comment