Director’s Update – June 2015

Every month, the CTSI Stories Blog will post excerpts from ongoing conversations with the institute’s co-directors.

Below, Martin Zand talks about how the Clinical and Translational Science Awards are changing and how the CTSI is working towards the renewal.MartinZandNEW

Hello Martin. We’ve heard that the CTSA awards are going to be a bit different than they were in the past.

First, a bit of background. The Clinical and Translational Science Institute at the UR was one of the first in the country to be funded 9 years ago, and the grant was renewed 4 years ago. Every 5 years we have to compete with other current centers, and new center proposals, to renew our NIH funding through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). Our grant is coming up for its third competitive renewal this year.

What can you tell us about the changes, and why are they happening?

In the past, the awards were basically individual center awards, where a center puts out a plan for what it was going to do locally that was within the description and requirements of the grant requirements from NIH. Those activities included growing and providing services to support translational research, workforce training, pilot programs to help young investigators, and so on. In the past, there wasn’t much emphasis on collaborations and networking between the 62 centers funded across the country. But over the last two years, there’s been a dramatic shift. The expectation over the next funding period will be that all the CTSAs across the country will collaborate with each other, and create a cohesive nationwide research network. The goal of this is to accelerate clinical and translational research across the country.

One of the things that has motivated the National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS) is that somewhere close to 30 percent of all NIH sponsored clinical trials are never completed. It’s not that they finished and weren’t published, they were just never even finished. So that’s a startling and very worrisome figure. We’re talking about hundreds of millions, if not a few billion dollars, that went into funding studies where, in the end, no usable results come out. Why does this happen?  A small portion of the answer turns out to be scientific: the problem was different than people thought, or they had to close down a trial because of early findings.

But that doesn’t account for all of them.

Unfortunately, no. Many studies never finish for structural reasons. And by that, I mean there are vast differences in how each research center handles the trial. All the centers currently have separate institutional review boards, contracting policies, cost structures. Some centers would negotiate for more funding because expenses were higher there than elsewhere. So if you’ve got a dozen institutions that agree conduct a clinical trial, you have to negotiate a dozen modifications to the consent form, which the other centers all then have to agree to. Then, you might need a dozen different contracts to pay for the trial, one with each center. Then you have the usual operational issues of enrollment, standardization of record keeping, and so on.  So, you can imagine that this process can take years. So, many studies didn’t even get started until the second or third year, and then funding finishes in year five.

What about the studies that actually finish?

Of the studies that actually finished, only about a 60-70 percent of them are published. The reasons for that are a little harder to ferret out. Negative studies often do not get published, and some end up having design flaws that become apparent in the statistical analysis after they were finished. But whatever the reason, if you’ve got scientific ideas you’re trying to take from the bench to the bedside, and in a large percentage of cases it doesn’t happen, then you should fix it. So Congress has been putting pressure on the National Institutes of Health, as they should. And NIH has tasked NCATS with creating a viable clinical trials network based on the CTSA centers. Overall, this is a really positive direction, and we all hope it leads to better, faster, and more scientifically insightful clinical trials.

What else has changed?

The other big change in the CTSA renewal is an increasing emphasis on team science. Scientific investigation has gotten very complex, with all the genomics, proteomics and other -omics technologies. Our ability to generate very, very large amounts of data has far outstripped our ability to analyze it. It’s really hard for any one investigator to do it all. The days when you could run your lab independently, without collaborators, and do all the statistics on an Excel spreadsheet or small statistical program are gone. Now you really need informatics databases, more sophisticated statistical collaborators, technical experts in RNA sequencing, and many other experts in complex methods and data analysis techniques that didn’t exist two decades ago..

Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Today, there continues to be an increasing recognition that no person can be doing discovery in isolation. So the nature of how we train people to be clinical researchers and scientists also has to change. Recognizing this, the coming CTSI renewal has a much greater emphasis on educating collaborative teams and fostering collaboration. These skills help Ph.D. researchers and clinicians collaborate and benefit from each other’s expertise, insights, and skills to take something from the bench to the bedside. So NCATS is placing less of an emphasis on funding individual projects and more of an emphasis on training scientists to work in teams.

If there’s less emphasis on individual projects, what will happen to the pilot program?

The pilot programs are an integral part of what the CTSI does, and will continue to be supported. You’re right that less of the funding will come from NCATS than in the past. But we are very fortunate that the Medical Center and the School for Medicine and Dentistry have recognized the importance of these programs, and provide other funds to help us keep them alive. In addition, the co-directors of the CTSI, Karl and Nana and I, are actively exploring ways of invigorating the funding program, so you might see more funding initiatives that ask for matching funds from divisions or departments, industry, and University wide partnerships.

I think one message for investigators is that we are all going to need to be more entrepreneurial. The more creative you can be in terms of finding matching funding and partnering with others, the greater your chances of success. A second message is to collaborate. Fortunately, the UR is a very collaborative institution, and it’s easy to find research partners. That’s also one of the roles of the CTSI – connecting people with common research interests.

Anything else you wanted to mention?

Well, writing the renewal itself is a team effort!  We have an incredible staff here at the CTSI, and there are individuals throughout the institution that are very dedicated to working on the renewal. We have over 40 authors right now for the renewal project. So it’s an industrial-sized undertaking. I think that all of us in leadership know that while it’s going to be a lot of work, I have no doubt that it’ll be done to an extraordinarily high level.


Previous Director’s Updates:

May 2015 – Nana Bennett discusses the enhanced role of the Strategic Leadership Group.
April 2015 – Karl Kieburtz talks about how the leadership is preparing for the Clinical and Translational Science Award renewals.
March 2015 – Martin Zand introduces himself and discusses his interest in informatics and population-based research.
February 2015 – Nana Bennett discusses the CTSI’s Seminar Series on population health.
January 2015 – Harriet Kitzman reflects on her time as a CTSI co-director.
December 2014  – Karl Kieburtz offers his takeaways from the CTSI all-hands retreat.
November 2014 – Nana Bennett speaks to the expansion of the role of the CTSI’s Community Advisory Council.
October 2014 – Harriet Kitzman discusses the science of team science.
September 2014 – Karl Kieburtz talks about why the CTSI is beefing up its informatics team.
August 2014 – Nana Bennett discusses the new Population Health pillar.
July 2014 – Harriet Kitzman offers her takeaways from the Mini Summer Research Institute.
June 2014 – Karl Kieburtz gives an overview of the CTSI’s six pillars.

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