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Texas Cancer Center Seeks to Speed Discovery with Applied Research

Xconomy Texas — 

To commercialize more discoveries from biomedical research labs, professionals in life sciences should take a cue from the physical sciences, where engineers convert basic science into real-world products. So says, Lynda Chin, chair of the department of genomic medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, which hosts the Institute for Applied Cancer Science.

“In physical science it is understood, you need engineers and theorists—physicists,” Chin says.“We haven’t figured that out in the life sciences.”

Chin, who came to MD Anderson three years ago from faculty positions at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard University, says a key motivator of her work in Houston is to make the wall separating the academy and industry more porous while encouraging equal respect for applied scientists and discovery scientists in the field. “There’s nothing wrong with research, and there is so much we don’t know,” she says. “But science needs to be translated to be useful to patients.”

Earlier this week, I sat down with Chin, who is also an Xconomist, to speak about the challenges in bringing a commercial mindset to academia, her efforts to corral big data into usable clinical information, and the role of technology in healthcare reform.

“The challenge is people accepting this new model,” she says. “We in academia have valued discovery and have not valued applications. We don’t value applied scientists.”

How do you change that culture? Chin’s answer—“it takes time”—underscores, perhaps, how difficult such shifts can be.

Helping that transition along is part of the philosophy behind the creation of the Institute for Applied Cancer Science, or IACS, at MD Anderson, an academically hosted institution that is focused on drug development, which she oversees. “With IACS, you have the opportunity to iterate and address the more fundamental challenges of accelerating therapeutic development within academia,” she says.

(IACS was also subject to some controversy two years ago when a $20 million grant from the Cancer Research and Prevention Institute of Texas was rescinded after questions were raised about the review of MD Anderson’s application.)

But for that approach to spread, applied scientists must be trained and supported as experts in their own right, she added. “Just because you’re a very smart discovery scientist, doesn’t mean you are a very good applied scientist.”

Applied scientists in life sciences currently learn on the job or are recruited from industry. Eventually, she says she hopes that a more formal curriculum can be set up to train these life sciences “engineers” who will lead efforts in drug development. In the short term, academic … Next Page »

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