Building Support for Basic Research

The push toward translational research was a much-discussed topic at the annual American Society for Cell Biology meeting.

Dec 16, 2013
Tracy Vence

WIKIMEDIA, HOLLY FISCHERThere’s no question that life scientists today are under increasing pressure to produce results of clinical significance. But where, exactly, is this push toward translational research coming from? And what role do scientists working on basic biological questions have to play in advancing medicine? These were key points of discussing at the annual American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) meeting this week.

“[This is] an era where many of our society members feel increasing pressure to do work which is so-called translational,” ASCB President Don Cleveland from the University of California, San Diego, said during a keynote presentation.

Shrinking federal science budgets have certainly incentivized cell biologists and other life scientists to abandon basic research questions for projects with translational potential. But, of course, at the heart of funding decisions are scientists themselves.

“In part, this idea that translation, translation, translation, everything has to have direct translation, was driven by us—we the scientists, those sitting on review panels,” Cleveland said during a later session on the topic.

Gregory Germino, deputy director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, who was not a panelist in the session, agreed. “One of the challenges is . . . in peer review. I think there has been a misunderstanding of what it means to say ‘significance’ of the work,” he told ASCB attendees. “People think that means we must emphasize the clinical [or] translational aspects, rather than the fact that something is significant” for other reasons, such as advancing scientists’ understanding of basic biological processes.

“We all want to fund important work,” Germino continued. “That can be important in many, many different ways, in terms of our fundamental understanding of something.” One solution, he suggested, would be for peer reviewers sitting on study sections to actively defend the importance of proposals for basic research projects. “That would really go a long way to helping make sure that [basic] R01s are funded,” he said.

Indeed, drug discovery and development are largely dependent on basic biological discoveries. “The more data you have about a target and a disease, the better,” Genentech’s James Sabry said at the meeting. “Once we find a target, we can build a therapeutic against it,” he said. “What we are not so good at is identifying the target . . . and that is a fundamentally biological question, not a pharmaceutical question.”

“It’s really [up] to the cell biologists to help us understand what’s going on,” echoed Huda Zoghbi from the Baylor College of Medicine.

Sabry added that even those researchers working on basic research questions who do not suspect their work has translational potential may one day be central to solving a clinical problem. In the end, said Zoghbi, “without discovery-based research we will never help patients.”