This summer, Garret FitzGerald, MD, chair of the Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics (ITMAT), testified at a briefing on the Hill organized by American Association for the Advancement of Science that the current drug-development system in the United States is flawed and in need of change.
In short, it’s because of a long-term problem that many have been writing about - the number of new drugs getting to market has remained the same for decades, while costs have skyrocketed. And, to boot, the system of bringing new drugs to patients is extremely expensive and inefficient. Not to mention the regulatory and intellectual property reform that’s needed.
"This represents an unsustainable model," he said, and to change it, "we need to unlock translational opportunities afforded by science."
But to take advantage of this opportunity, the medical community, and society at large, needs to better invest in training the next generation of pharmaceutical scientists.
“Across the world we have depleted our workforce who have skills in the basic sciences and also who pursue mechanistic clinical research in people,” said FitzGerald at the briefing. “There are people who bridge the translational divide between basic and mechanistic elucidation of disease and drug action in people, but they have become rare birds indeed. And we all pay the price.”
He outlined four areas that are affected by this dwindling investment in human capital: the drug discovery process; the drug development process; the regulatory process; and how people choose which drugs they take, since most of us and our physicians get information about new drugs these days from television advertising in the form of direct-to-consumer ads produced by Big Pharma.
To combat this brain drain, ITMAT has several educational programs, developed by Emma Meagher, MD, that are training the next generation of translational scientists. The Introductory Patient Oriented Research Training Program, a nine-month practical applications course for individuals starting their clinical research careers has trained 307 individuals since its inception in 1996. A more intense Masters of Science degree program in Translational Research that provides an in-depth instruction in the fundamental skills, methodology, and principles to become an independent clinical investigator has graduated 50 students and has 40 students currently enrolled.
“Our goal is to create a workforce of translational scientists who will be adept at bridging the divide between basic research and clinical investigation,” says Meagher. “Our MTR graduates are actively engaged in translational research primarily in academic institutions with a smaller number working in industry.”
ITMAT is also directing its educational efforts towards undergraduate students. An internship program, established in 2009, has engaged 56 students from area schools including Penn, Drexel, Lincoln, Haverford, Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr in translational research projects conducted on Penn’s campus.
What’s more, ITMAT is developing Masters programs in Regulatory Science and Bioinformatics to address workforce needs in these domains.
“Our work is not done!” states Meagher.
Dr. Meagher also teaches a free course, "Fundamentals of Pharmacology", on Coursera.