Defining translational science — and why it matters

More treatments, more quickly.

Published June 7, 2023

“Translational science holds promise to improve health and improve healthcare by speeding the development of the new innovations to get them into clinical use.”
Tim Murphy.

“Translational science holds promise to improve health and improve healthcare by speeding the development of the new innovations to get them into clinical use,” says University at Buffalo Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) Director Timothy F. Murphy, MD.

Murphy sees the COVID-19 pandemic as a clear example of the value of translational science, which the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) defines as “the field that generates innovations that overcome longstanding bottlenecks and roadblocks to accelerate progress along the translational research pipeline. These include scientific, operational, financial, and administrative innovations that transform the way that research is done.”

As Murphy puts it, “If researchers have barriers, and are intentional and motivated, many of these barriers can be overcome.” In a matter of months, Murphy explains, a new virus was discovered, the organism was identified, large-scale clinical trials showed the efficacy and safety of a vaccine, and that vaccine was soon widely available to everyone. “That is nothing short of spectacular.”

Translational science, then, is focused on understanding the scientific and operational principles underlying each step of the translational process. It is how research findings are accelerated to healthcare, thus impacting people in Western New York and around the world.

Translational science and translational research

In a 2022 blog post, Michael Kurilla, MD, PhD, NCATS Director of the Division of Clinical Innovation, explained that “there is a spectrum within translational science that seeks to traverse the path from initial basic research activities through preclinical and clinical activities to implementation within routine healthcare and finally public health outcomes at the population level. Those activities across this spectrum comprise ‘translational research.’”

Murphy explains that translational research "involves discoveries made in the lab or in the field and bringing them into new treatments and new healthcare interventions that improve health."

Successful translational researchers, Murphy says, inevitably encounter barriers and figure out how to overcome them through trial and error. “Translational science brings scientific rigor to addressing barriers and understanding the pipeline — the principles in each step along that translational process — and then developing and testing ways to expedite that research process and the time it takes to bring new healthcare interventions to treatment for patients.”

Translational science has become an area of emphasis for NCATS. In a heavily cited article for Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, former NCATS Director Christopher P. Austin, MD, stated that “translational science will advance via research — that is, translational science research — that seeks to develop an understanding, technology, theoretical principle or paradigm that will make the development of any therapeutic intervention more efficient and effective.”

More treatments, quicker

Experts say the most common bottlenecks in the translational pipeline often result from two factors — clinical trials not meeting recruitment goals and regulatory barriers. Under Director Joni L. Rutter, PhD, NCATS has emphasized “addressing long-standing bottlenecks in the translational pipeline so that new treatments reach people faster,” as stated in a November 2022 CTSA Program Annual Meeting presentation.

Translational science will help researchers overcome bottlenecks, Murphy says, because it “raises the level of reliability and the scientific rigor of the things that investigators are testing to try to figure out what works, and what does not work.”

Ultimately, advancing translational science is about staying true to the vision Rutter outlined in a January 2022 Director's Message, “more treatments for all people more quickly.”

“We have outstanding innovations, and ways to improve healthcare and cure disease,” Murphy says. “What we need to do is figure out how to reduce the 14-year average span from identifying a drug target to receiving FDA approval. We have an opportunity for better healthcare to treat the diseases that people have and that their family members have, and for it to happen sooner.”

For those interested in learning more about translational science, the NCATS Education Branch offers courses to the scientific community, produces original scholarship on translational science, and highlights related educational and training resources for translational science.