Team science promises to accelerate bench-to-bedside pace
Malnutrition in developing countries is a problem that has plagued the global community for years. UC Davis researchers are among those who have been working to create a nutritional supplement that could meet a long list of criteria: inexpensive, easy to store, tasty for children, easy to prepare for parents and, of course, effective at preventing and curing malnutrition.
Finding a potential solution and making it a reality has required a multidisciplinary team of experts that are part of the UC Davis Foods for Health Initiative (FFHI). The Initiative includes 90 faculty members from a variety of disciplines, including food science, medicine, veterinary medicine, engineering, agriculture and public health. First proposed four years ago, FFHI connects the best in food science, nutrition and engineering to medicine and works to turn promising nutritional solutions into realities.
With respect to combating malnutrition, FFHI investigators, led by Professor Katy Dewey, investigated a lipid-based nutrient supplement called Nutributter, made in part from peanuts, that so far has met all the requirements of a practical solution and has already been shown in randomized clinical trials in Ghana to prevent malnutrition in the first year of life.
"Big problems, like mass-scale malnutrition, require perspectives that transcend individual disciplines in order to solve them," says M.R.C. Greenwood, the initiative's director and professor of nutrition and internal medicine. "We are at the leading edge of an exciting new field, and the key to our success is taking a team-based approach to the science," she says. "It's the way many complex problems with be solved in the future."
FFHI is just one example of the multidisciplinary teams on campus that involve School of Medicine faculty. This team approach to science is one that is supported and encouraged by the UC Davis Clinical and Translational Science Center (CTSC) as a way to accelerate the pace of bringing basic research findings to patients and communities. These investigators are not only working together to change the way science is done, but are training the next generation of researchers to work in interdisciplinary teams, as well as forming innovative partnerships with collaborators off campus.
"We've realized that we do better science and bring it to patients faster when we embrace diversity and work together," says Frederick Meyers, director of the CTSC's Research Education, Training and Career Development program and chair of internal medicine.
UC Davis' approach to team science made it one of the original 12 institutions chosen by the National Initiatives of Health (NIH) to receive a Clinical and Translation Science Award, allowing the campus to establish the center. The laboratory scientists, physician researchers and educators who make up CTSC are creating a model for how universities can accelerate the pace of bench-to-bedside research.
The next generation
Meyers is heading up CTSC's efforts to produce the next generation of team-oriented researchers. CTSC programs provide junior faculty, postdoctoral researchers and students with the multidisciplinary skills in clinical and translational science they will need to establish independent research careers targeting improvements in human health.
Students in CTSC training programs are exposed to working with other team-scientists-in-training early on.
"We actually teach them together to make sure they have lots of collaborative experience," Meyers explains. He and others are working to expand the integration of science education on campus. "By getting young people to train together in teams they will work together as teams as young faculty."
Meyers helps coordinate the research career development programs at UC Davis Health System. In total, three programs are available to junior faculty, two to clinical fellows and postdocs, and three aimed at training Ph.D. and M.D. students.
The Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women's Health Program, for example, is a $2.1 million career-development program for new Ph.D. and M.D. faculty funded by the NIH. Junior faculty are paired with senior faculty mentors and are encouraged to focus on research areas that are essential to improving the health of women. The program provides an environment that nurtures non-traditional interdisciplinary collaborations.
The Integrating Medicine into Basic Science training program, funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Initiative (HHMI), introduces Ph.D. students in biomedical research and engineering to the world of clinical medicine.
UC Davis-HHMI scholar Stephanie Pulford is trained in both aerospace and mechanical engineering. Her dissertation research aims to improve the application of stem cell technology.
Pulford is working to apply a technology called microfabrication – originally developed for the manufacture of computer chips – to stem cell-based therapies. Microfabrication creates the basic building blocks that allow self-assembly to occur when microscopic structures are suspended in liquid.
Stem cells, it turns out, are highly receptive to mechanical forces. "If a stem cell is grown so that it is in the shape of a ball, it turns into a fat cell. If it is spread out, it turns into a bone cell."
Pulford hopes to take advantage of this mechanically induced plasticity by using microfabrication to build precise tissue scaffolds. Currently, scaffolding is created from materials with randomly arranged pores.
"The method we are perfecting allows us to design precise shapes that determine where cells go and how they perform," she says.
The technology promises to make stem cell-based methods of tissue regeneration more effective.
Cristina Davis, Pulford's mentor, says she believes there are great advantages to recruiting students from traditional engineering disciplines and having them work in areas of biomedicine.
"These students come prepared with knowledge outside of the biological fields, and they can often contribute very creative ideas that fuse the disciplines together," says Davis, who is assistant professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of the Bioinstrumentation and BioMEMS Laboratory.
This kind of academic cross-pollination also helps to change the culture of science from individual-oriented to team-oriented. This helps to move science forward, but also benefits the students.
"This training paradigm is very powerful, giving our students a unique set of skills as they enter the workforce," Davis says.
Moving technologies like the ones developed by Davis and Pulford from the laboratory to the treatment of patients will eventually require clinical trials. In order to facilitate those trials, CTSC has formed partnerships with Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California and the Veterans Affairs Northern California Health Care System.
The VA partnership has resulted in a unique opportunity for patients and physician researchers. Under the auspices of the NIH, CTSC has set up the Clinical Research Center, a highly specialized, 8,000-square-foot patient unit in the Sacramento VA Medical Center at Mather. It provides researchers with a fully equipped and professionally staffed environment for admitting, evaluating and caring for clinical-trial participants.
"We are able to see these patients in a safe and comfortable environment," says Nicole Mullen, assistant director of clinical research resources for CTSC. Mullen's office is located at the VA, where she acts as the liason between the CTSC and the hospital. She works to ensure that the trial participants get seamless medical and research attention from UC Davis faculty.
"Our collaboration with UC Davis provides our veterans with not only convenient access to clinical trials but the kind of research expertise one finds in a top academic medical center." says Brian O'Neill, director of the Sacramento VA Medical Center. "Everyone benefits – our hospital and veterans, and UC Davis and its patients, and ultimately, all health consumers."
Changing science from within
Society, as a whole, stands to gain from this kind of team approach to science.
"It takes almost 20 years for us to take an advance made in the laboratory and apply it in a clinical setting," Meyers says. "That's just too long."
Tearing down academic walls that have prevented collaborations on and off campus in the past is not without social and cultural barriers, Meyers says. Scientists may be experiencing something akin to culture shock.
"We have to learn new scientific languages. Lab scientists have to be comfortable working alongside physicians," Meyers says.
In a typical university environment that is set up in departments and centers, grants like the one that made the CTSC a reality are all the more important.
"The CTSC is one way of building new connections within the existing structure," he says.
The university's Foods for Health Initiative is another. Initiatives like FFHI have a competitive edge when it comes to funding, says Greenwood. "If you look to calls for proposals from government agencies and foundations, the money is there for complex problems – like obesity and other chronic diseases – that require this kind of approach," she says.
Thanks to these national science policy and funding changes, team science is rapidly enhancing the more traditional way of doing science on campuses across the country.
"Because we are willing to work together," Greenwood says, "UC Davis can lead the way in the transition to team science in many areas of foods and their relationships to health."