Are you interested in the practical application of life sciences research? If so, an understanding of translational research is useful to see the vast opportunities to help patients and cure diseases. We recently interviewed Dr. Gabi Hanna, CEO of Lammasu Pharma and Founder/Executive Director of the Duke Preclinical Translational Unit. Hanna explained the nuances of translational research and bridging the gap between research and patient care. There are fundamental roles for academia and biotech to play in the process. If you value innovation, collaboration and healthcare, this interview is a must read!
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your background, before becoming a medical doctor?
I grew up in northeastern Syria and came from a family oriented toward valuing education. Despite facing persecution as Christians in Syria and being unable to complete his own education, my father was the Chairman of Commerce and as a businessman, he employed hundreds of people. Innovation is in my blood. My father, my role model, mentor and the smartest man I know, taught me how to how to turn ideas into businesses that are both profitable and give back to the community. I started my first business in the 11th grade and was also a mathematics champion in Syria.
Growing up and contemplating career options, I knew that I wanted to do good and leave the world a better place, and felt that if I accomplished this, financial success would follow. With the support of my family, I chose to go to the U.S. to access the best educational opportunities and pursue my medical degree.
My initial passion was for surgery, but as I progressed, I became interested in surgical oncology and related research. I realized that I could have a greater impact developing new therapies and treatment by commercializing research that would affect potentially millions of patients, than I would as a surgeon treating one patient at a time. My path shifted as a result and led me to Lamassu.
2. What is translational research? Why did you decide to focus on it?
After I moved into research, I became focused on both the innovative and promising basic research in discovery, and the failure of the biopharma industry to commercialize research in a timely manner. Academics were making incredible findings in labs and hospitals, but this knowledge was rarely translated to clinics, patients, and approved therapies and treatments.
Acknowledging this gap led me to explore translational research. I wanted to bridge the gap between research and patient care and bring practical benefits to patients. The challenge in translational research, and why I decided to focus on it, lies in translating the knowledge you create to benefit the patient. It is a more direct take on new knowledge and using it to step by step solve a problem.
3. What do you think are the primary differences between translational research and other types of research (applied etc.)?
While translational research shares some characteristics with applied research, translational approaches are more targeted to specific goals and the steps clinicians and scientists need to take to get the treatments to the patients.
4. Have you noticed any new trends related to the field of translational research?
There has more of a focus on translational research – even on a high level – from NIH recently, and in universities. We are moving forward on translational research projects at Lamassu. We are focused on identifying new projects and working to bring existing ones, like our drug for acute pancreatitis, a life-threatening condition that has no existing treatment available, to the patients who need it most. While I am encouraged that there is more talk around translational research, I see more talk than practical applications and there is still a long way to go.
Population health is also a new trend we are watching. This involves looking at how clinical knowledge can be leveraged across patient populations to improve public health and wellness and has some parallels with translational research.
5. How are the concepts of translational research and translational medicine related?
Translational research involves taking basic clinical research, in its early stages and moving it forward with specific results in mind.
Translational medicine refers to the more advanced stages of research and involves taking the research and applying it directly to the patient. Once the knowledge of a treatment is established, then it is translated to the patient. Once proven with a small cohort of patients, it can be expanded to a bigger population of patients, or population of health problems.
6. How can professionals in academia support translational research?
Academia is the key to translation research. Academics hold the basic knowledge and the connection to the patient, where innovation often starts in translational research. They know the clinical need and are the key to translating it into a treatment or an idea for a treatment. By definition to translate something you need to have basic knowledge, you can’t translate French to English unless you have knowledge of both French AND English. Academics, and particularly those working in academic medical centers, have the knowledge of both sides and are uniquely suited to help make the translation from clinic to research to medicine happen.
To get better at translational research, institutions need to decide to devote resources to do so. There is often a lack of determination to conduct translational research, as it often happens at the expense of other types of research and doesn’t have the same incentives and rewards. In academic medical centers, they need to break down the silos between basic science research and the clinical departments. There also needs to be more emphasis on it because academics get rewarded for publishing their research, not bringing treatments to market. Staff and facility need to foster prospects and push them to pursue translational research projects.
7. What advice would you give to life sciences professionals who would like to get into the translational research field?
Always start from the endpoint – which is the patient and their clinical needs. Make sure the disease is understood fully to look for new findings and approaches. Translational research by definition means that we need to define the end goal very well, then work backwards to figure out the steps.
Go in with the patient in mind and start from the basics. Ask yourself how the patient is going to benefit and then go back to the knowledge. Don’t be afraid of complexity or the unknown. Let passion thrive and be grateful.
Porschia Parker is a Certified Coach, Professional Resume Writer, and Founder of Fly High Coaching. (https://www.fly-highcoaching.com) She empowers ambitious professionals and motivated executives to add $10K on average to their salaries.
Gabi Hanna, M.D. is an entrepreneur with extensive experience in early drug development, over 15 years with leadership positions and a successful service CRO company to serve small and mid-size biotech in planning, designing and executing early drug development studies. Focusing on translational research, and the importance of tangible outcomes, Dr. Hanna founded the Duke Preclinical Translational Unit to utilize all expertise, and resources at Duke to advance drug development. Dr. Hanna is chairman of the NC Society of Physician Entrepreneurs, Board member of Duke IRB, Founder of the Drug Acceleration Development Consortium between Duke, Cleveland Clinic, UNC and RTI, in addition to being a Board member and advisor for multiple companies.