Second Opinion

What Drives Basic Research?

My colleagues at the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI) and the UM/Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center place a great deal of importance on translational medicine and moving research findings more quickly into the clinical setting. As a basic scientist, I support their vision. I will even go so far as to state that I would not apply for, or enter into projects that don't show scientific advancement with clinical relevance.

There are misconceptions today that clinical collaboration somehow means science is compromised. I beg to differ. Untargeted research has always had a place in medical research. Without it, smallpox, polio, and pneumonia still would be killers and cripplers. But what moved Jonas Salk's polio vaccine out of the lab and into application was his clinical collaboration, which today remains one of the largest trials ever conducted. Many of us recall the long lines of people receiving the vaccination that led to polio's eradication. This is what biomedical research is all about. The way I see it, if I'm a basic scientist at a medical school, why not ask the clinical questions?

Dr. Bourguignon photoTo attack diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, we need a broader base of knowledge that provides much faster results in moving our findings from labs to clinical trials. Collaboration between scientists and clinicians can shorten the time to develop effective treatments for the patient. The bottom line: More resources and support--whether financial, human, or scientific-facilitate faster exchange and progress.

Dr. Bourguignon quoteSpeaking of the bottom line, another reason collaboration has become so vital is that the National Institutes of Health, the primary U.S. funding source for basic science research, has begun requiring collaboration in its proposals. Both government and private funding sources favor projects for which clinical utility can be demonstrated; NIH focuses more on proposals that include disease-relevance information.

Public opinion has influenced the direction of clinically relevant research during the last decade. Taxpayers who fund NIH research, as well as public interest groups such as breast cancer survivor organizations, are demanding greater accountability and faster results.

I am often referred to as a cancer cell biologist; however, only five or six years ago, my laboratory was still pursuing relatively untargeted basic science research. In recent years, the NIH and Army Breast Cancer Medical Research Program directive motivated scientists and clinicians to collaborate. In fact, some of our current work with clinical investigators at UM/Sylvester is a result of these initiatives. My clinical colleagues knew that as a cell biologist, I had an in-depth understanding of cellular regulation. When certain cells behave inappropriately during cancer progression, it is vital that we identify and characterize the abnormal cellular segregation, movement, growth, and signaling that "turns on" cancer cells, making them so deadly and resistant to treatment.

And that was just the beginning. Now, I also collaborate with colleagues at the DRI, Parkinson Foundation, and others on the medical campus. Our combined creativity plays a major role in establishing hypotheses for our projects.
It is important for basic scientists to forecast their involvement in future clinical advances and requirements. We need to be innovative and recognize that high-risk research projects yield high return. We can no longer do the same old closed-door laboratory science if we expect to contribute to the advancement of medical science.


Lilly Y. Bourguignon, Ph.D., is professor of cell biology and anatomy at the University of Miami School of Medicine. She has led the breast cancer research program and is now co-leader of the Tumor Cell Biology Program at the UM/Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.


University of Miami Medicine Online

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