The phrase “translational research” often refers to pharmaceutical companies moving from basic clinical research into drug development. Sometimes pharma companies do this research themselves, and sometimes they license compounds from Academic Medical Centers (AMCs), with technology transfer deals bringing revenue to the AMCs. There’s another approach gaining steam, though. That approach is AMCs bringing translational research applied to digital health applications to market. AMCs are developing workflows and processes to harness their research and move it into the public sphere where it can improve healthcare outcomes.
While peer-reviewed published research and conference presentations are vital to the AMC mission, it’s not the only thing that matters. Some argue that this research lives on, to be cited for years to come, but it can also be argued that much of it just collects dust. The newer trend is that AMCs are expanding their mission so it goes beyond academicians. The validated research can then make a broader public impact while generating revenue. This is especially true in the digital health sector which is now booming, with almost $6 billion in funding just in 2017.
Successfully commercialized digital health translational research includes mobile apps for cardiac and transplant rehabilitation, nutrition programs, and exercise plans. Applications can be used for remote monitoring and care delivery too, capturing biometrics, guiding participants through daily activities, giving space for providers and patients to chat in a HIPAA-compliant environment, and delivering education.
Challenges to digital health translational research
There are a number of challenges for AMCs with translational research in the digital health space. While there are solutions, to fully succeed, AMCs need to commit to the process.
1. Attitudes toward success in academia
Academia thrives on the prestige of publishing, which can affect tenure and grants awards. Changing the AMC culture to expand how researchers are recognized and rewarded brings a more entrepreneurial spirit. This allows researchers the freedom to innovate, which ultimately can benefit the AMC, the researcher, and society as a whole. A cultural shift allows researchers to focus more on science that can positively impact the public, rather than research for the sake of research.
2. Lag times from bench to clinic
Research takes time, with multiple barriers to move through the translational process. One publication focusing on cardiovascular research found the average lag time was 17 years for the research to enter clinical practice. The research’s internal rate of return was 39% annually in perpetuity, and researchers noted that shortening the lag time resulted in greater benefits. Lag time depends, of course, on the various stages of research and development. That includes writing and receiving grants, obtaining research approvals, conducting multiple research phases, and the regulatory or government approval process, which varies based on the type of research and product in development.
3. Verifying digital health programs
As of 2019, more than 3,000,000 health applications were available. These are not all vetted like a pharmaceutical treatment would be vetted. As a researcher or an AMC, it’s vital to put out a verified digital health product that is properly researched, put through clinical trials, and backed up with data. Not only is that the ethical thing to do, but it’s the smart thing to do. It makes an application stand out for not its effectiveness, and for coming from a reputable AMC and researcher.
4. The difficulty of cross-functional teams
Moving from the bench to the clinic requires different skill sets. Researchers are typically great at research but the implementation angle can be more difficult. Individual labs are not usually set up for the translational process. What’s needed is a cross-functional team including scientists, clinicians, information technology staff, AMC tech transfer representatives, regulatory oversight, and commercialization partners to provide the various skills.
5. Creating a new workflow for translational research
Cross-functional teams are one aspect of a translational research pipeline. But a new AMC workflow is often needed to support digital health application creation. Some AMCs are forming innovation centers to shepherd innovations through the process, gathering the cross-functional team members, and creating the structure to follow an innovation from research through commercialization, while decreasing delays. These centers can address tough questions about protecting patient data privacy and adapting programs for clinical purposes. The centers are perfect for AMC researchers who are new to the translational process.
How AMCs are tackling digital health solutions
These challenges are not insurmountable. AMCs are already successfully addressing them. Duke University recently announced the creation of its Research Translation and Commercialization (RTC) effort, which will expand its ability to accelerate innovations and commercialization efforts for therapeutics and products. They want faculty and staff to have greater abilities to move their scientific ideas into the marketplace while creating additional economic opportunities. “Guided by our mission of advancing health together, Duke’s influence can help ensure that the latest advances in medicine and technology benefit not just some, but all of us,” said A. Eugene Washington, chancellor for health affairs and president and CEO of the Duke University Health System, in an announcement
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) created the Institute for Digital Health and Innovation to facilitate translational research and clinical care. Serving mostly a rural population, they felt their AMC faced clinical and research obstacles. They found that digital innovations could be a helpful solution to better serve that population, addressing literacy efforts to research improvements.
NYU Langone Health also wanted to incorporate innovation with digital tools. They realized they had a problem when one of their research teams received a grant to develop digital tools in the child mental health space. The team didn’t have the expertise to develop the tool themselves. They realized if they developed it in-house, it likely would not be successfully adopted within the AMC, let alone externally. Stories like this led NYU Langone Health to create the Digital DesignLab to coordinate innovation efforts with research efforts. This DesignLab would assist the pipeline and provide the strategy, scalability, and sustainability tools.
Brown University and Lifespan, Rhode Island’s largest health system, formed the Brown-Lifespan Center for Digital Health. Their idea was to eliminate health disparities on an individual and public health level, using technology. They bill it as an incubator for research and development while training upcoming digital health scientists and entrepreneurs. “We will help people from across our hospital and university campuses to go from ‘idea-to-impact’ quickly, efficiently, and ethically,” said Megan L. Ranney, MD, MPH, the center’s director, in an announcement.
As these examples show, AMCs do not need to reinvent the wheel when tackling translational research and digital health. Pattern Health partners with 12 of the top 20 AMCs, and 6 of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies to develop and commercialize translational medicine and digital health products. Current programs range from remote cardiac rehab to surgical risk prediction assessments, to building habits for wellbeing. To learn more about how your AMC can benefit from translational research in the digital health realm, contact Pattern Health.