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Translating research into treatments; UB's new facility will speed up the process of turning scientific breakthroughs into practical application for patients' health

The next big piece of the growing Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is about to fall into place.

Researchers over the next few months will begin to move into the University at Buffalo's new Clinical and Translational Research Center.

The center comprises the top half of the shiny new $291 million building connected to Kaleida Health's Buffalo General Medical Center at Ellicott and High streets.

So what's all the fuss about?

The emerging focus on this research reflects a worrisome problem: Not enough breakthroughs in science are getting to the stage where they can be tested in patients and, eventually, approved for use as drugs, medical devices and other treatments.

The idea is to quicken the time it takes scientists to translate research about the most basic workings of the body into studies in patients that, in turn, lead to new therapies that ultimately improve outcomes and produce healthier communities.

"If you look over the past 30 years, there have been spectacular advances in science," said Dr. Timothy F. Murphy, director of UB's center, citing such examples as the national Human Genome Project, which completed mapping all human genes in 2003. "But if you look at how, collectively, we have done at turning those advances into new drugs and treatments, it's not so good."

Today, it takes an average of about 13 years to take research ideas and turn them into marketable drugs. The cost of that process exceeds $1 billion for just one successful medication, and the failure rate for all the potential drugs is greater than 95 percent, according to an article last year in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Concern over the increasing complexity, roadblocks and cost of turning ideas into new medicines led the National Institutes of Health to make translational research a priority.

The NIH, which funds a large portion of medical research across the country, last year established a new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, with a goal of reshaping how medical science is done.

In addition, since 2006, the government agency has been providing grants to a network of institutions involved in translational research. UB wants in on the network and is seeking $20 million, likely over five years. It expects a decision in 2013.

"The new center is an important first step for us," said Dr. Michael Cain, vice president for health sciences at UB and dean of the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Planning for the center began in the latter half of the 2000s as UB developed its plan for the future, known as UB2020, and with the recruitment of Cain, an advocate of the concept.

>An unusual partnership

UB received $118 million from the state for the project, with some of the money coming from the State University of New York. About $35 million in additional funds are being used to outfit the center with equipment and researchers.

In an unusual partnership between private and public entities, UB and Kaleida Health teamed up to construct one building to control costs and to strengthen ties between UB's medical school and some of its chief hospitals for training doctors.

The idea of translational research seems obvious, but impediments exist.

For example, basic science tends to focus on expanding scientific knowledge about the basics of life, such as molecules and genes, without regard to whether what's studied leads to a product.

Basic scientists usually work separately from the clinical researchers who take basic findings and turn them into studies of experimental treatments in patients.

Translational research, in theory, focuses on collaborative endeavors involving different scientists and physicians, or physicians who also work as scientists who take their own ideas from the laboratory to patient studies.

The new building was designed to foster interactions among doctors and researchers who don't ordinarily mix at work.

"The new center is the most exciting thing to happen in all my years here," said Dr. John Canty, UB's chief of cardiovascular medicine and a researcher here for more than two decades.

The center features large, open laboratories that accommodate different research teams who will share common equipment, a departure from researchers working in separate places.

It includes examination rooms for patients enrolled in studies, as well as a repository to store tissue samples. There is a business incubator to help researchers create medical products and business spin-offs.

Importantly, one floor offers physicians and researchers access to the spectrum of imaging devices, from CT scanning to MRIs to positron emission tomography, or PET.

Other work at the center will include incorporating translational science into the training of doctors and others in health-related fields, as well as funding promising pilot studies elsewhere at UB and at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

"The ability to go back and forth in one building from the laboratory to the patient to the imaging facility is critical. When you combine that with having a heart and vascular institute below us, with the opportunity for the sort of chance encounters with physicians that can lead to new ideas, it's really unique," said Canty, referring to the fact that the bottom half of the building contains Kaleida Health's new Gates Vascular Institute, which opened this spring.

>From lab to bedside

Canty is part of a team of heart-related researchers who will move into the new center. Their latest work exemplifies translational research, he said.

They reported last month unpublished findings that suggest cardiologists may have a new way to identify patients at highest risk for sudden cardiac arrest and most likely to benefit from implantable cardiac defibrillators.

Using PET imaging, the researchers found that when at least 38 percent of the nerves in the heart were damaged, there was a significant increase in the risk of sudden cardiac arrest.

The team originally studied factors that lead to sudden cardiac arrest in animals and used those findings to design the most recent research in humans.

"We took this from the [laboratory] bench to the bedside. That's what translational research is about," said Canty.

Other research slated for the center includes teams focused on neurosurgical devices to treat strokes, genetic markers for Alzheimer's disease and the work of Murphy's group.

He specializes in vaccine development against pathogens responsible for otitis media, the ear infection that primarily affects children, and lower respiratory tract infections in adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

"This is not just about moving the chess pieces around," Murphy said. "We are combining some of the best research groups and recruiting new people."

About 40 percent of the lab space remains available, and plans are to use it to recruit new leaders for some of the medical school departments.

"There is a practical aspect to the center. To recruit and retain these physician-scientists, you need labs near where their patients are," said Cain. "You also are able to locate people irrespective of their departments into common programs. It achieves the goal of having a Ph.D. biochemist sitting next to a glucose expert sitting next to a cardiologist."

email: hdavis@buffnews.com