What is Translational Research?

Translational research is an emergent field with varying definitions depending on the source examined. Unlike basic research and clinical research, which are clearly defined and therefore clearly evaluated, those developing translational research programs have encountered difficulty in defining program objectives, knowledge and core skill-sets, appropriate curriculum, and program outcomes, as well as assessment and competency of those outcomes.

This guide explores the multivariate definitions of translational research from reputable sources, examples of its applications, and an example of an academic program in this discipline.

How the Experts Describe Translational Research

In effect, translational research is any type of medical research conducted for the purpose of improving patient outcomes and community health outcomes. The result of the research is to create devices, medicines, algorithms, and businesses dedicated to improving patient health. In addition, translational research seeks to speed up the often painstakingly slow process of developing these helpful options and entities, while continuing to monitor safety and efficacy.

Examine the following definitions:

  • The Yale Center for Clinical Investigation elucidates the differences between varied trial stages of clinical research: T1 (translation to humans), T2 (translation to patients), T3 (translation to practice), and T4 (translation to population health).
  • According to members of the evaluation committee of the Association for Clinical Research Training (ACRT):

    “Translational research fosters the multidirectional integration of basic research, patient-oriented research, and population-based research, with the long-term aim of improving the health of the public. T1 research expedites the movement between basic research and patient-oriented research that leads to new or improved scientific understanding or standards of care. T2 research facilitates the movement between patient-oriented research and population-based research that leads to better patient outcomes, the implementation of best practices, and improved health status in communities. T3 research promotes interaction between laboratory-based research and population-based research to stimulate a robust scientific understanding of human health and disease.”

  • In an effort to give the term a universal definition, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defined the term as part of the criteria for its Institutional Clinical and Translational Science Award:

    “Translational research includes two areas of translation. One is the process of applying discoveries generated during research in the laboratory, and in preclinical studies, to the development of trials and studies in humans. The second area of translation concerns research aimed at enhancing the adoption of best practices in the community. Cost-effectiveness of prevention and treatment strategies is also an important part of translational science.”

  • According to the Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute: “Translational research involves moving knowledge and discovery gained from the basic sciences to its application in clinical and community settings.”
  • According to UC San Francisco, translational research (specifically T2) “performs evidence to practice research concentrating on the dissemination and implementation of best practices in prevention and treatment in the community.”
  • According to an article in Science Magazine, “Basic science starts with a hypothesis and designs experiments that validate or reject it, with the goal of acquiring knowledge. Translational science starts with a health need and looks for scientific insights or tools to address that need.”

Translational research is a highly collaborative type of research, bringing together researchers from varied disciplines such as medical professionals, engineers, bioinformaticians, community members, patients, epidemiologists, pharmacists, patent experts, lawmakers, regulators, and others in an effort to create better health in local communities as well as nationally and globally. Research ideas can come from any one of these entities or other fields to create questions for research and applications necessary to improve patient health. Translational research is sometimes called “bench to bedside research.”

Translational Research Applications

Translational research is a process that can be applied to any health problem. It may begin with basic research, or it may begin with a health need and work backwards or in a circular motion from there. It always seeks to move the process through to the delivery of solutions into the healthcare system. These solutions may include:

  • Clarifying the mechanisms of disease
  • Developing drugs and devices to treat health concerns and disease
  • Developing measures for the presence, severity, and improvement of disease
  • Developing ways to prevent disease
  • Developing quality improvement programs
  • Developing unique intervention and implementation strategies
  • Identifying barriers to positive health outcomes
  • Identifying facilitators to positive health outcomes
  • Identifying healthy behaviors and care processes for positive health outcomes

Examples of medical applications could include but are not limited to:

  • Treating cancer with targeted drug therapies discovered through translational research
  • Identifying factors that contribute to mental health diseases and addressing those through targeted drug, diet, and intervention therapies
  • Addressing diabetes, obesity, and heart disease through the study of metabolism and other mechanisms in the body
  • Genomic translational research to study why some people get sick in the same environment while others do not. (CDC)
  • Reducing emergency room visits through collaboration with social support agencies
  • Developing new MRI technology and testing with patient care facilities
  • Identifying genetic markers for disease through collaboration with researchers, bioinformaticians, and geneticists
  • Treating and preventing chronic kidney disease through identifying risk factors, discovering ways to diagnose the disease earlier, and treating through drugs and other ways specific to the disease
  • Identifying barriers to being screened for prostate cancer through collaboration between medical practitioners and research firms to gather information about screening misperceptions and addressing those through education campaigns
  • Initiating early diagnosis and treatment of pediatric diseases through collaboration between doctors, researchers, patients, families, and healthcare organizations
  • Participating in focus groups and patient advocacy groups
  • Having community members and patients fill out surveys and participate in community discussion panels
  • Inviating healthy individuals to participate in medical studies to advance translational research

Who is Advancing Translational Research?

There are several institutes created for the purpose of advancing translational research objectives. These institutes seek to apply translational research to real-world health problems. For example the Institute of Translational Health Sciences (ITHS) seeks to speed the process of moving research to actual clinical application. The ITHS partners with the University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and Seattle Children’s Hospital and Research Institute, as well as community organizations, regional institutions, and medical providers, in order to promote innovative research and produce translational researchers through their educational programs.

There are many other reputably institutions including:

Degree Programs in Translational Research

For those interested in earning a degree in translational research, there is a growing number of programs, including some distance-based options. Master’s degrees and graduate certificates in clinical and translational research can be earned online or on campus at institutions throughout the U.S. For example, George Washington University in Washington D.C. offers a graduate certificate and a master’s degree in clinical and translational research. Similar programs can be found at other higher learning institutions. Courses for these programs may include:

  • Foundations in translational research
  • Research ethics and human subjects
  • Epidemiologic methods
  • Clinical research administration
  • Biostatistics for clinical and translational research
  • Bioinformatics for genomics

Translational research is an important, nascent field in the healthcare landscape. As more professionals and students study translational research and as more entities collaborate to create medicines, devices, algorithms, businesses, and programs to improve patient outcomes, local, national, and global healthcare is expected to change for the better.

Farheen Gani
Farheen Gani Writer

Farheen Gani has immense knowledge about medical technology schools, having researched topics such as medical billing and coding, health information management, nursing informatics, and biotechnology degree programs since 2018. She is a freelance writer, marketer, and researcher. She writes about healthcare, technology, education, and marketing. Her work has appeared on websites such as Tech in Asia and Foundr, as well as top SaaS blogs such as Zapier and InVision. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter (@FarheenGani).