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Posts Tagged ‘technology’

I just returned from the NIH where I was invited to lecture on translating science into therapies. I had presented my science there before and I was not quite sure how interesting they might find my broader perspective, which I had entitled: “The long course from ‘the Aha!’ to cures: can we do better – together?“

The standing room only audience provided a first clue that emphasis is evolving at the NIH… During the Q&A and in talking individually to several people, I could sense their intense interest and excitement regarding the many challenges – and opportunities – created by the translation of basic science into positive health outcomes. Several independently pointed out that Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., took no break from being confirmed to making his first appearance as the new NIH chief where he announced what he hoped to accomplish during his term. The overall underlying message was clear: no time to spare!

For those relying mainly on the funding that comes from the NIH to carry on science, it is very important to understand what the change at the NIH helm might mean for its future directions and priorities to increase chances of successful funding. In the bigger picture, all of us will be affected as the NIH-sponsored research is a major – if not the major – source for the new ideas that become one day life saving treatments. I dare to say that the success of these ideas is in no small measure due to the fact that the NIH, throughout various administrations (maybe in spite of?), has been one of the original and perennial implementers of innovation models, yet not even themselves might think of it that way. For instance, the NIH has a signature initiative called an “RFA” (requests for applications), where they invite independent researchers to submit proposals related to specific scientific and health questions, and they fund the winners. Isn’t this a classic case of “crowd-sourcing”, implemented way before the term was coined? The NIH also has an “RFP” (request for proposals) mechanism by which they contract projects with the various independent winners and create the network needed to sustain the project – isn’t that what is called elsewhere “out-sourcing” and “open innovation”?

I could not find a script of Collins’ speech, but I watched it for you! Here is a short run down of what he announced as his top 5 priorities for the NIH during his term:

  1. Apply new high throughput (“comprehensive”) technologies (e.g., nanotechnologies, genome wide-scans, proteomics) to understand fundamental biology questions as well as causes for different diseases.
  2. Emphasize translation of basic sciences into treatments, making “discoveries amenable for public benefit”
  3. Put science to work for the benefit of the heath care reform: “inform the conversation based on scientific evidence not on prejudice” by performing comparative effectiveness studies (e.g., study effect of life style changes vs. therapies for treatment of diabetes)
  4. Put greater focus on global health, including AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other major diseases in developing countries, by working with them in research and helping them develop their own capabilities
  5. Reinvigorate the biomedical research enterprise by making sure that funds are available to support younger investigators, increase work force diversity, encourage risk taking and innovation.  

I for one, cannot but applaud and embrace all these goals. Even as an academic researcher, I have always sought to “begin with the end in mind”, or how I like to refer to it “going back to the future”. In my case, this means starting with examining the real life case (the patient) to formulate the questions to take back to the lab for study in detail, increasing the chance that the answers from our research would be used to alter for the better the patient’s health in future

Some of the more hard core basic researchers might not entirely feel comfortable with the emphasis on translation. I agree that there is a fundamental need for fundamental research: the pursuit of questions that are so “out there” that no one can really tell where they might lead us or what they might connect with. Yet, after putting a lot of bright dots on… the blue sky, some need to concentrate on seeing patterns and be able to connect them, yet others will need to start figuring out how we might touch upon the new dots and patterns. I see the issue of translating science not as an imposition on fundamental research, but as an invitation to an open intellectual dialogue between basic, applied and clinical scientists, as well as product developers, regulators, and the public, where all can contribute with their own proficiency: the “constructive interference” effect. It is still not easy most of the times, as many places still operate based on narrow definitions of expertise and make make others feel as strangers in a stranger land. Thus, making scientific innovation happen for the benefit of humankind will require skilled, open-minded, and maybe fearless translators who can make sense of various intellectual languages and lands

Here is a list of related links:

Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., inaugural address to the NIH

About Translational research

The NIH Overview

In Wikipedia

Nature Medicine: In the land of the monolingual

NIH Funding opportunities for translational research

NIH-RAID (Rapid Access to Interventional Development 

NIH Translational research meetings

The NIH Roadmap

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eclipse and twitter

Thinking Twitter? Bird perching on the statue of late Chairman Mao Zedong is silhouetted against a partial solar eclipse in Wuhan, Hubei province July 22, 2009. Reuters

I know… I used to be skeptical about using Twitter too. “Who has the time?” right? Also, I did not think it would be interesting to “tweet” about myself; however, I finally pulled myself from my inertia and gave it a try. I even succeed to beat Oprah to joining Twitter by almost… a day! I am now tweeting for My Lab Your Lab and for Amplinovia.

I do not yet feel pressed to tweet all the time. I tweet for two main reasons:

  • to communicate news and thoughts about science, scientists and about innovation in general, which I feel might be of interest to others. For me, tweeting is an interesting mental exercise. Twitter forces users to distill whatever they want to say in 140 characters or less (including spaces and included URLs). Many times I find it to be a challenge for me to write a message that it is both clear and interesting; however, the direct style of communication is right down my alley and I had already used Twitter as a paradigm of the times to challenge speakers on an innovation panel I recently organized for BIO to convey their main message in one minute or less (hey, I was much more “generous” with words than Twitter! 😉
  • to connect with like-minded people. In spite of its virtual nature, I can attest that Twitter brings together diverse people in real life. For instance, I might have never met Amira, an undergraduate student from U of MD, if it wasn’t for Twitter. Due to our Twitter connection, Amira became a member of My Lab Your Lab, our growing online scientific community, and later she asked me to become a mentor to help with her upcoming major career decisions.

I also use Twitter to gather knowledge and information. I follow people and news outfits that have something relevant to say. I try to encourage yet hesitant people by telling them that one can actually filter the staggering amount of intersecting chatter in the… Twittosphere (?). I would list as main reasons for which I recommend reading others tweets the following:

  • Twitter news are… well up-to-date! Twitter spreads news fast, these can originate either from a phone (e.g., as sms) or from a computer.  Compared to most websites that usually require some techno-savvy people to update content, Twitter updates in real time, as demonstrated by the news immediately spread during the recent events in Iran. I understand that a lot of professional  journalists use it now to get their leads for information.
  • Twitter is also “democratizing” the news and breaking down “walls” and “boxes” – i.e., anybody from anywhere can create or spread the news, no journalistic credentials required! Of course, access to technology (cell phone or computer) is needed… The Twitter crowd is innovating the way we create and  gather our news.
  • Twitter expresses the mood and interests of its global community =“crowd-feeling”? For those seeking patterns and global trends, the column that appears on the right of the Twitter’s homepage shows what the top topics people communicate about at any given time are. Most times I find that the topics are not what I would consider interesting… I think the main problem is that many people who might have something enlightening or interesting to say are not on Twitter yet (!) For instance, at the 2009 Experimental Biology  meeting, attracting 14,000 highly educated and smart registrants, it was pretty shocking to discovera as result of a poll that I was the only attendee using Twitter at a session specifically dedicated to employing Internet 2.0 tools to connect science, health, and the public… As shown by a recent articlein the “Journal of Happiness Studies” (yes, there is a legitimate journal that uses scientific methods to analyze and measure moods in a variety of contexts) the global online written expressions such as those from blogs and on Twitter (in fact a form of “microblogging”) can now be mined and analyzed. I can think of many public health, educational, and business reasons for which this exercise might be helpful.
  • Twitter allows the wide sharing of personal wisdom, knowledge and wit. I think great Twitterers (?) are philosophers and poets of current times. Is an educational collection of the best crafted, deepest, most inspirational messages on Twitter available yet?

In case you are intrigued, Twitter has put on line a very simple to follow “101 course” on how to use it for a variety of “serious” reasons, complete with business case studies. Btw, I have no conflicts of interest… Hey, Tweet me @amplinovia let me know what you think!

P.S. If all this talk about relevant and timely messages did not convince you to try Twitter yet, you might want to check if you favorite places now accept “to go orders” placed on Twitter…

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Christmas innovations

A quick survey of the topic revealed news of the fashioning of a mobile nativity driven around by an Indiana man to overcome the ban on displaying religious paraphernalia in front of public buildings  to Santa coming by scuba scooter

The Christmas card seemingly maintains the reputation as the major season-related innovation. It took a man (Sir Henry Cole) exasperated with the handwriting to standardize the task and the lowering of the postage rates in the 1840s to spur such innovation. One wonders if the electronic cards showcasing new technology and styles every year would finally put an end to the long standing reign of the classic snail-mailed card. This Xmas I got mostly interactive animated cards, and I myself sent free custom-made animated ones. Technology also makes possible innovations in gift giving. For instance, instead of sending (and receiving) that dreaded unwanted Xmas present, givers can collaborate by chipping-in for receiver’s dream trip instead, sort of “crowd-funding”. If you do not want to go alone, (internet) Santa might just help you find a travel buddy…

Merry Christmas!

Christmas in the middle of "Circle City" by Zorina Galis.

Christmas in the middle of “Circle City” by Zorina Galis.

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