Clinical vs Translational Research

Research begins in the textbooks, moves to the laboratory, filters into clinical trials, and then leaps into the broader population. On that journey are silos of expertise with many different components of research. At the most basic level, clinical research tests theory and application, while translational research facilitates the connection between the study and its practical applications to people.

Clinical research involves studying human subjects through surveys, health services research, or clinical trials. It consists of careful and narrow testing of heavily regimented and regulated hypotheses. Through clinical research, scientists and physicians can deduce new methods of diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of illness.

Translational research acts as a bridge between different research areas, connecting their findings, and ultimately, to the community at large. While extensive resources have been dedicated to basic laboratory research and clinical research, barriers have existed between the two—e.g., barriers in terminology, application, and knowledge—and translational research is a relatively new discipline that investigates new methods to move discovery into application more effectively.

Clinical research and translational research have a lot in common. In fact, many university programs offer combined degrees and certificates in the two areas of study. However, the nuances of each type of research require specific skill sets and differing perspectives. Read on to learn about the convergences and divergences of clinical and translational research.

Clinical Research Translational Research
What is it?

Clinical research is the study of human subjects and involves testing new methods of diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of illness.

Translational research acts as a bridge between science and practice. It links laboratory science with patients and findings with the community’s needs.

Who uses it?

Clinical research is performed by:

  • Clinical research coordinators
  • Clinical data managers
  • Clinical nurse specialists
  • Social science research assistants
  • Clinical laboratory technicians

Translational research is performed by:

  • Translational research managers
  • Postdoctoral scientists
  • Bioengineers
  • Patent experts
  • Physicians
  • Principal investigators
Where is it conducted?

Clinical research is most often performed at academic medical centers and affiliated research sites. It combines the intellectual and technological heft of a university department with the sizable demographic pool of an urban setting, from which researchers can draw a diverse range of human subjects.

Translational research includes aspects of basic and clinical science. It thus requires a combinatory set of skills, tools, and resources that likely are not in place at a typical laboratory or clinic. Environmental control and specialized technology are a must. Therefore translational research is most often found at dedicated university science departments and isolated research centers.

Sample academic programs

Clinical research professionals who meet specific eligibility requirements may apply for certification through the Society of Clinical Research Associates (SOCRA) or the Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP).

As a relatively new research discipline, translational research does not yet have any widely-accepted credentialing pathways beyond the degrees and certificates available at higher education institutions. The Georgia Clinical & Translational Science Alliance (GCTSA) and Georgetown University are examples of academic programs that offer 16-credit programs in clinical and translational research.

The Bottom Line

Clinical research is the testing of scientific findings on humans. It acts as a central junction of the pipeline from scientific research to medical practice.

Through rigorous and disciplined studies, clinical research can determine new methods of diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease. This often requires an intensely singular knowledge base. Clinical research is what science, at its core, is all about: the careful and pragmatic testing of mature hypotheses in controlled environments.

Translational research seeks out the possible human applications of scientific and clinical findings and translates them into strategies for improving healthcare delivery, patient outcomes, and community health. This is a horizontal knowledge role that unites different specialties.

Whether linking the laboratory to the clinical trial or linking the clinical trial to the population, translational research is about putting theory into practice and developing new theories about how practice can take place in various diverse settings.

Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about emerging topics in medical technology, particularly the modernization of the medical laboratory and the network effects of both health data management and health IT. In consultation with professors, practitioners, and professional associations, his writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best. For, he’s interviewed leaders and subject matter experts at the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).