Developing tomorrow’s healthcare products

In today’s blog, Marja Karttunen, Research Support Adviser, meets the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine’s Translator-in-Residence, Dr Andrew McBride, and discovers how he helps researchers make use of translational funding opportunities.

First of all, let’s define what we mean by “translational”. The way Andrew uses the term, it refers to taking your basic science discoveries and converting them to the healthcare products of tomorrow: e.g. diagnostics, therapeutics, cell therapies, medical devices and health informatics where research can influence public health policy.  In this sense it is translating basic science into societal benefit.

“Translation is what people are after, when they say ‘I just want my research to be useful’”, Andrew muses.

Why do translational research?

Apart from the obvious satisfaction that your research is producing a tangible real-world benefit, doing translational research can also open up new funding opportunities. There are now numerous rich veins of funding specifically geared towards translational research: the Medical Research Council’s Developmental Pathway Funding Scheme, British Heart Foundation Translational Awards, Wellcome Trust Innovator Awards and Innovate UK, just to name a few. As projects pass beyond the proof-of-concept stage, partnership and collaboration with industry can both accelerate translation and provide additional funding sources.  And of course, being involved with translational research can also provide priceless content for those impact statements for your other grant applications as well, not to mention the common good achieved by boosting the University’s REF return, of which impact is a significant part.

How does a person end up being a Translator-in-Residence?

“I have always worked in translation in one way or another”, Andrew reminisces. “I started my career in industry, in a small biotech company, working on small molecules, as novel antibiotics against superbugs. This was a great grounding because I’ve seen how science works in a commercial setting.”

He then went on to complete a PhD at the University of Dundee, before embarking on a post doc with the Drug Discovery group at the Centre for Cardiovascular Sciences. Andrew worked on multiple projects, often as part of interdisciplinary collaborations with industry and clinicians to deliver two candidate compounds. Andrew was directly involved in every stage of the process, from initial discovery and target validation through to preclinical development and Phase I human trials.  He can now proudly report that one of the compounds, Xanamem, is in Phase II clinical trials for cognitive decline in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

“There was a lot of focus on hitting milestones and on reporting”, he recalls. “But that was good – now I can instil that same discipline to other research groups.”

What does your role involve?

“It’s a first and foremost a research and development job”, Andrew says. “My job is to help researchers across the College evaluate, plan and manage their translational research project.”

That is, Andrew supports researchers at all stages of their translational research projects, indeed before a researcher even has a translational research project. He regularly meets colleagues to discuss their research and attempt to identify translational potential in projects that aren’t currently headed in that direction. Whenever potential is spotted, Andrew works with the researchers to develop the idea and starts to look for translational funds they can tap into.

If a project goes on to be funded (hurrah!), the work of the Translator-in-Residence is not over. It is important to keep projects on target, to ensure that they reach objectives and milestones. This is part and parcel of how translational funding works – the whole point of translational research, as opposed to more traditional discovery research, is to add value by delivering on specific translational objectives. Andrew provides project management expertise, based on his own experience.

“This can take some discipline”, he admits. “I sometimes have to manage researchers’ natural curiosity and keep them on track with the agreed course of the project – while of course remaining flexible!”

Not following up on new and interesting findings might go against the inquisitive nature of researchers, but keeping on the translational pathway within the project is worth it to make it easier to pick up the next translational funding for that project, and ultimately form industrial collaborations. Having said that, of course, it would be foolish to ignore promising leads. It’s about finding the balance between discovery and translational research.

Sounds interesting. Can you give us some practical examples?

To better understand what his role actually entails, I ask Andrew to describe some of his recent activities. He talks about internal funds intended for small-scale translational projects, such as the Institutional Strategic Support Fund (ISSF3), and the Medical Research Council’s Confidence in Concept (CiC). He helped new and uninitiated Principal Investigators tap into this resource, by working with them to map out their research from having nothing to do with translation, to submitting applications. An important point to note is that even if any particular application is not successful, the process of finding translational aspects to their research often leaves the PIs incentivised to apply for more, and seeing ways forward to obtain external funding.

“Simply putting the ideas down in an application, not to mention the feedback you get, can provide a lot of value going forward, and help you refine your plans, so you’ll have a better proposal next time”.

Another success story he mentions is a group of PIs who were not collaborating before, in fact were not aware of each other’s research, due to being thematically and geographically separated across the University, whom Andrew brought together and have since discovered they can accelerate each other’s translational work.

“It’s a big win-win for everyone”, Andrew smiles, “and a long-term thing, and hopefully the conversations they are having now will result in multiple joint applications and joint funding.”

What does a typical day look like for you?

“A lot of it is a process of gathering information, from emails to publications to going through Twitter, to see the research outputs of the different centres. I go to meet PIs, or groups of them, most days; this can be helping PIs look for and match funding sources or developing or reviewing applications, depending on the stage they are at.

In addition to bespoke guidance on a one-to-one or small group basis, Andrew also gets involved with events promoting a translational culture, such as the Regeneration and Innovation day held last month at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine. This was fun and dynamic event that included an information session for early career researchers as well as a Dragons Den style innovation competition, where researchers pitched their ideas to a (presumably intimidating!) panel and the winner was awarded funding for their idea.

Events like this are important to raise awareness of translational possibilities, and plant seeds into the minds of researchers – you never know what might grow out of them!

On top of this outward-facing activity, Andrew sits on a number of committees, helping different institutes develop translational strategies on a broader level and provides expertise for REF impact case studies, advising on pathways to further impacts and upcoming opportunities that may push a case study up a star or two.

What’s the best thing about the job?

“Being exposed to all the different areas of science”, replies Andrew immediately. “All the cutting edge stuff here in Edinburgh! I enjoy having the interaction with the science and the people doing it, and getting a sense of their enthusiasm, and different perspectives, and trying to feed these back to the funders.”

That’s what it’s all about, I agree. It is a constant source of excitement for us Research Support Advisers too, to see people make connections and plans and help projects develop.

The last word

To finish, I ask whether Andrew has a message he’d like to send out to the research community. He does:

“Start the conversation early!”

I find myself fervently agreeing with this, as Andrew continues: “Never be afraid to start talking to someone like me. Talking to us is more likely to open doors and possibilities, which won’t happen if you don’t talk to us. Not everything works straight away, but it may be the start of something.”

If you are interested in developing the translational potential of your research, please contact Andrew at a.mcbride@ed.ac.uk

Dr. Marja Karttunen is a Research Support Adviser in the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine.

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