For the Love of the Lab

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From the diagnosis of acute upper gastrointestinal hemorrhage to the awareness of urban pests and pesticides to the epidemiology of dengue fever in St. Lucia, the topics studied by students and faculty at the George Washington University are not just fascinating— they have the potential to influence the health and well-being of people around the world. 

At the 17th Annual Health and Medicine Research Day, March 28, these and over 300 other projects were put on display for the entire GW community to see.

“Health and Medicine Research Day is always an exciting day,” said Jeff Akman, M.D., interim vice president for Health Affairs and dean of SMHS, who delivered welcoming remarks at the Jack Morton Auditorium.  “It enables us to truly learn about the expanding scientific enterprise that’s happening right here within our own institution.”

The day, which preceded a second research day that focused on natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences, was a collaborative effort between the GW’s Office of the Vice President for Research, the School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), the School of Nursing (SON), the Milken Institute School of Public Health (formerly the School of Public Health and Health Services), and Children’s National Medical Center (CNMC).

The morning kicked off with a keynote address delivered by Lisa Guay-Woodford, M.D., who was just two days into her appointment as director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at CNMC, a partnership with GW that provides research infrastructure, services, and training in support of clinical and translational—or “bench to bedside”—research.

“Translational research knits us together as a research community,” she said, “because translational research is a team sport and it requires people with special skills that really are encompassed across the spectrum of our enterprise.”

During her speech, Guay-Woodford, a pediatric nephrologist, spoke about recent scientific advances in polycystic kidney disease and used the condition as an example of successful translational research.

Fifty percent of patients with polycystic kidney disease, a genetic kidney disorder, progress to end-stage renal disease, said Guay-Woodford. One of the goals of research is to understand why the other half doesn’t progress and then to use that knowledge to help prevent disease progression in all patients.

“We are getting close to targeted therapies that will attenuate the progression of the disease,” she said. “If we could change the natural history of the disease so that no one suffers end-stage renal disease, that would be a major clinical advance.”  

Translational research is also an important concept among public health professionals. Lynn Goldman, M.D., M.P.H., dean of the MISPH, applauded the growth of her school’s research portfolio over the past few years. 

“Research is very important in and of itself,” she said. “But the work we do as scientists also makes us better educators and better practitioners of public health in the community.”

Paula Lantz, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Health Policy at the MISPH, delivered the second keynote address, “Improving Population Health Through Community-Based and Policy Translational Research.”

One aim of population health research is to extend the number of years people live in good health while shortening those years filled with disability, a concept termed “compression of morbidity,” said Lantz. Another goal of the field is to reduce health and health care inequities.

“Research is a vehicle or mechanism to help address problems within communities,” she emphasized. “We have to push beyond the research.”

Lantz used the Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, vaccine as an example of the disconnect that can occur between basic science, therapeutics, and policy.  The vaccine is seen as a major public health advance but remains largely controversial in the public eye.  

“We can have good discoveries at the bench, but when we translate that to the community, everything can blow up,” she said. 

The morning session concluded with a panel discussion moderated by Vincent Chiappinelli, Ph.D., interim associate vice provost for Health Affairs and associate dean of SMHS. Guay-Woodford and Lantz were joined by Marlene Lee, R.N., nurse manager of the General Clinical Research Center at CNMC, and Henry Kaminski, M.D., Meta Amalia Neumann Professor and Chair of Neurology at SMHS, to discuss translational research across the continuum.

The panelists identified several barriers that can inhibit discoveries at the bench from moving swiftly into patient care. For example, policy decisions aren't necessarily timed to correspond with the release of research findings, studies are rarely conclusive (“Have you ever written a paper that didn’t say ‘more research is needed’?” asked Lantz), and science isn’t the only factor that shapes policy decisions. 

“When politics come into play, sometimes that can trump the science,” said Lantz.

The speakers also discussed the diminishing number of doctors who are also clinical investigators. “When I see that unique patient, that patient that doesn’t fit the paradigm, atatient who makes me think in a different way, I bring it into investigation,” said Kaminski, a physician scientist. “That’s the piece that may be lost.”

But Kaminiski and his fellow panelists remained hopeful for the future of research. They supported the increasingly popular emphasis on teamwork in medical education and assured students interested in the basic sciences that their skills will always be valuable. “You can’t translate what you don’t know,” said Guay-Woodford.

In the afternoon, the spotlight turned from experienced researchers to aspiring ones. Students in SMHS, MISPH, and SON displayed their projects on posters that filled the Marvin Center. They shared what they’ve learned with one another, and responded to rapid questioning from faculty members who judged their work.  

At the award ceremony that followed, winners of the oral competition from each school delivered short presentations about their research. Kristin Ceniccola from the Institute of Biomedical Sciences, for example, spoke about her work on molecular mechanisms of liver cancer, while Lamin Juwara from SON addressed compassion fatigue among oncology nurses.

Rakesh Kumar, Ph.D., professor and Catharine Birch and William McCormick Chair of SMHS’s Department of Biochemistry, and Jeanny Aragon-Ching, M.D., assistant professor in SMHS's Department of Medicine, were awarded the 2011 Elaine H. Snyder Cancer Research Award. John N. Van Den Anker, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Pediatrics and Physiology at SMHS received the 2012 Distinguished Researcher Award.

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