Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

For a winning health care system, lab advances must be translated into clinical solutions

By Kyle Kurpinski

Universal access to affordable, high-quality health care requires not only advances in science, technology, policy, and clinical services, but also more effective translation of technological innovations into the marketplace. To cross the gap from lab bench to patient bedside, innovators must deal with issues of product development, technology management, market positioning, cost/reimbursement, and regulation. Graduate education that teaches skills needed to negotiate this translational continuum is invaluable training for the next generation of scientists, physicians, and managers.

The joint UC Berkeley/UCSF Master of Translational Medicine (MTM) program is one example of this new approach to developing multidisciplinary experts with the unique skill sets required to make a major impact on quality, cost, and accessibility of health care. Bioengineers at both universities have worked together over the past three years to realize this new vision for education, and several of us shared insights from that experience in the new issue of Science Translational Medicine1.

Publications and patents, rather than products, are typically the metrics of success for traditional graduate education in the biomedical sciences and engineering. However, an advance in the lab must be translated into a product if it is to have an impact on patients. This translation typically relies on funding sources that are quite different from those that drive scientific research, and it requires a different set of skills than traditional graduate programs offer.

For example, a physician-researcher with an intimate understanding of a clinical need may turn to an engineer for design experience, and an engineer with a novel medical device might require a regulatory expert as a guide through the Food and Drug Administrations approval process. A Ph.D. or M.S. graduate may be qualified to lead R&D activities but is rarely qualified to contribute to other aspects of the translational process, such as regulatory issues, cost analysis, or clinical trials.

MTM: A Berkeley-UCSF partnership

In 2010, with the generous support of the Grove Foundation, UC Berkeley and UCSF initiated a joint Master of Translational Medicine program. Applicants often have an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering, but many also come from other engineering disciplines, biological sciences, pharmacy, and medicine. Applicants to the program share a common interest in medical technologies and, more specifically, in learning how to transform new innovations into practical clinical solutions.

This diversity of students is crucial to a field that hinges on contributions from a broad spectrum of players: scientists who make new discoveries, engineers who design and build new technological solutions, business executives who navigate issues of finance and marketing, regulatory agents who monitor and enforce the rules, and clinicians who use these newly approved medical technologies in their practices. The goal of the MTM program is to offer a comprehensive view of translational medicine to accelerate and amplify the skills of those best poised to have an impact on medical innovation.

Teaching the skills to make a difference

Successful education in this discipline requires an understanding of three main subject areas: biomedical technology (to ensure that technical solutions are sound and well-designed), clinical issues (to recognize medical needs and the complex regulatory and reimbursement issues that must be navigated), and leadership and technology management (for product development and adoption in the marketplace). These educational components are brought to bear in integrative team-based capstone projects in which students collaborate in real-world settings on newly developing technologies. In the MTM program, teams work on yearlong discrete projects to address an unmet clinical need with a novel medical technology, all with the same long-term goal: to create a new medical innovation and translate it into clinical use.

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There are other educational programs offered by U.S. institutions that are similar in spirit to Berkeleys MTM program (for example, at Georgia Tech, UC San Diego, and Johns Hopkins). In its own way, each responds to a new paradigm of educating future leaders who can transform the face of health care.

Cross-posted fromScience Translational Medicine