The Roots of Reverse Translational Medicine
Mary Parker

The Roots of Reverse Translational Medicine

What an English doctor has taught us about sharing medical data. Day One of the Charles River World Congress meeting.

 The World Congress on Animal Models in Drug Discovery & Development sponsored by Charles River kicked off in Boston with an overview of the history of reverse translational medicine by Elazer R. Edelman, a cardiology expert who directs the Harvard-MIT Biomedical Engineering Center .

Edelman began with the case of a 38-year-old Army veteran who came to the hospital with an anterior myocardial infarction, and was fitted with a drug-eluting stent (DES). Throughout his speech, Edelman returned to the veteran to illustrate the importance of the relationship between science and technology, and how both should be considered not only in terms of research models, but ultimately in terms of individual patients.

Edelman touched on many topics in his speech, including changing ideas of the morality of animal models in medical research, the relationship between science and technology, and the rise of research based on observed clinical issues, otherwise known as reverse translational medicine. According to Edelman, the foundations of this “bedside to bench” approach were laid by an English physician in the 18th century who was the first to describe angina pectoris .

“William Heberden was a remarkable man,” Edelman said. “He challenged all of his students to study diseases on the basis of clinical observations…[In an editorial] we celebrated his life, and we termed what he did reverse translation .”

The example of the army veteran was used to illustrate the importance of “science and technology marching in lock-step.” In the case of stents, controversy erupted when patients like the veteran seemed to get sicker, despite research showing that drug-eluting stents were superior to bare metal stents. In this case, Edelman said, the relative thickness of the stents had been overlooked as a factor in cases where patients developed thrombosis.

“Clinical challenges provide not just opportunity, but a moral obligation to harness science and technology,” Edelman said.

At the conclusion of his speech, Edelman took  the opportunity to urge the importance of scientific advocacy. He added that scientists need to be better about admitting what they know and what they don’t, referring back to his personal motto “Priam sciere,” or “Above all, seek to understand.”

Prion Researchers Honored

The meeting also honored a research couple racing to find a cure for a rare disease that has tremendous implications for both of them. Sonia  Vallabh and Eric Minikel of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard were the first recipients of the Charles River Research Models in Drug Discovery Award, which included a prize of US$50,000 from Charles River Labs. The award was presented to the couple by CRL CEO James Foster at the World Congress.

When Vallabh lost her mother to the rare prion disease fatal familial insomnia, the couple changed careers and founded the Prion alliance to raise money for research into human prion diseases. Vallabh, who is also at risk for the disease, and her husband Minikel, shared their story and stressed the importance of a patient registry to develop future clinical trials for preventative drugs.