A (very) brief guide to translational research

Translating the information learned from research to help solve practical problems.

If you’ve been paying any kind of attention to the media surrounding medical research and its importance, you’ve probably heard the term “translational research” at least 1000 times.

Translational research is the area between “blue sky” research, sometimes referred to as curiosity-driven research, and applied research. Researchers attempt to translate the information learned from blue sky research into real world settings and use it to help solve practical problems.

It has gained popularity as a distinct field over the years due to its emphasis on tangible health and economic outcomes. It is most commonly used to develop therapies for diseases, and directly improve clinical outcomes and patient wellbeing.

No matter your background, if you’re interested in a career contributing to clinical outcomes, you can find a place in a translational research institute

My Honours project involves identifying new ways that high-density lipoproteins (commonly referred to as “good cholesterol”) are able to improve the healing of diabetic foot ulcers, which are the leading cause of lower extremity amputations in non-traumatic cases. This is an example of translational research. Our end goal is to develop our findings into something doctors can use to treat diabetic patients and prevent the need for amputations. Our results will be “translated” into these new applied practices.

This research is part of the Heart Health theme at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI). Heart Health is the epitome of a massive multi-disciplinary translational group and being involved with this program has been an amazing educational experience. 

Heart Health tackles pretty much anything involved with cardiovascular disease and the vascular complications of other diseases like diabetes. The best thing about that broad range is that it’s led to the accumulation of an incredibly diverse group of people. You might be thinking that translational medical research is only for people with molecular biology backgrounds, but here’s a snapshot of the diversity within Heart Health.

  • A nurse studying their PhD in women’s cardiovascular health
  • A pharmacology major who now specialises in mass spectrometry imaging
  • A statistician (and life saver for those of us who haven’t done real stats since first year of Undergrad)
  • A few cardiologists and a vascular surgeon
  • A forensic chemistry major working with clinical cardiovascular imaging modalities
  • A bunch of people from health science and science biology backgrounds researching atherosclerosis, pathological angiogenesis, diabetes, novel populations of inflammatory cells, or repurposing drugs.

No matter your background, if you’re interested in a career contributing to clinical outcomes, you can find a place in a translational research institute like SAHMRI.

What’s in it for you?

As a baby research student, being surrounded by people from different backgrounds is incredibly helpful. I went into my project as a biochemistry major knowing very little about the pathology of diseases or how clinicians address various cardiovascular diseases. After hearing about the other research people are conducting into atherosclerosis, peripheral arterial disease and so many others, I’ve been exposed to real life learning experiences even the best classrooms can’t emulate. 

One of the most interesting elements of my time working on Heart Health has been the lab meetings. Every week three lab members give a presentation about their research. As a group we discuss how this research can be used in biochemistry, therapy development, or how a clinical doctor would be able to use the research to help their patients.

Some of the projects we’ve discussed:

  • Identifying new micro-RNAs that play a role in mediating HDL’s effects on diabetic wound healing (spoiler alert, there’s a bunch of them)
  • Analysing atherectomy samples (little chunks of plaque scraped from the inside of blood vessels) to characterise the lipids that make up the plaque
  • Developing completely new methods to analyse atherosclerotic vessels and combine lipid characterisation with locational data (basically creating pretty 3D images that tell you which lipids sit where in different kinds of plaque), which could identify lipid groups as biomarkers for vulnerable plaque

I went into the Heart Health theme thinking I had no interest in the “health” aspect of translational research, and that I’d want to focus only on the biochemistry of my project, but I was wrong. I’ve come to realise that the field is so diverse, and that basic science and clinical outcomes can be so much more closely intertwined than I’d ever imagined.

There really is something for everyone. 

Khalia Primer is the Immediate Past Vice-President of the Adelaide University Science Association (AUScA).

This piece originally appeared in the Adelaide University Sciences Association’s column in On Dit, a student publication of the University of Adelaide. Republished with permission from the author.

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