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Translational Science In Action

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Author: Rafael J Veraza, MPH | Category: Beyond The Bench | Translational Science (Ph.D.) | August 11, 2017

As a Translational Science Ph.D. student, one of the most common questions that people often ask, is what kind of language do we translate? 

Translational Science, is not a linguistic translation, it is the field that moves discoveries from basic scientific principles in the laboratory all the way to useful medical and public health applications in humans. A translational scientist might study the stage between fundamental scientific discoveries and translate the results to animal studies, or study how to bring results from animals to clinical trials in humans. 

Furthermore, the last stage of translational science is based on translating results from clinical trials to entire populations, and even create public health policy based on scientific evidence. As a fourth year Ph.D. student in the joint Ph.D. in Translational Science between UT Health San Antonio, UTSA and UT Austin, one of the most rewarding experiences I have gained through my program was my participation as the recipient of an NIH Translational Science TL1 fellowship award.

As part of the award, we were required to take a practicum/internship course outside of the laboratory, to gain experience in an area of translational science that as graduate students we don't usually have the opportunity to participate. For example, some fellows chose to work on public health initiatives locally here in San Antonio, another student shadowed a physician in the area of pediatric obesity, and some of us decided to intern with small local biotech companies to learn about the business of translational science.

As part of my practicum, I worked with the San Antonio Angel Network to understand how investors think and what they look for in companies to invest. I also had the opportunity to work with a start-up company called Vascular Perfusion Solutions (VPS), a company that licensed technology from the Office of Technology Commercialization at UT Health San Antonio to preserve and transport limbs and vascularized tissue for re-plantation, and transplantation. I worked closely with the CEO Tom DeBrooke, who is a serial entrepreneur in the area of biotechnology and a graduate of the Harvard Business School. He taught me the basics of running a startup biotechnology company and how to raise funds at early stages of biotech ventures. 

I also had the pleasure of working with Professor Leon Bunegin (Department of Anesthesiology and Intellectual Property lecturer for the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences), the inventor and scientist behind the technology to preserve limbs and vascularized tissue, and counts with over 100 patents and publication in the area of organ preservation.

The breakthrough technology that Vascular Perfusion Solutions has licensed from the University is based on a device that preserves limbs and vascularized tissue using oxygenated perfusion. The device will be able to preserve limbs from soldiers in the field to save the tissue and be able to replant the limb into the patient. Not only can the device preserve limbs but most vascularized tissue such as hearts, lungs, and livers, and it can preserve vascularized tissue for up to 24 hours at room temperature.

A recent article in Nature Biotechnology on organ and tissue preservation, stated that “organ shortage is among the greatest crises facing biomedicine today" (Giwa. et al., 2017) and estimates show that by 2050 the amputee population will reach 3.6 million people (Amputee Coalition of America). One of the main reasons for organ shortages is due to organ preservation constraints, current technology cannot preserve organs for more than six hours, and distance becomes a problem. The authors of the Nature paper cited that "with all supply constraints removed, organ replacement could theoretically prevent more than 30 percent of all deaths in the United States—doubling the average person’s likelihood of living to 80 years of age" (Giwa. et al., 2017). 

VPS is poised to revolutionize the market for limb and vascularized tissue organ transport and transplantation. Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, director of Pediatric Transplantation at UT Health San Antonio, said that "if we can find a way to preserve organs for longer periods of time in an efficient manner, we can give hope to millions of patients waiting for a viable organ."

In the last few months; I have worked closely with Prof. Bunegin and Tom DeBrooke in perfecting this technology and moving it forward to attain FDA approval by next year in 2018. Most recently, we presented the technology to the Harvard Business School Club of San Antonio, and Prof. Bunegin and Tom DeBrooke attended The Summit of Organ Banking through Convergent Technologies at Harvard Medical School, where they presented the technology and began new strategic partnerships for the device.

After completion of my practicum in May, due to some unfortunate circumstances, I lost over half of my funding at the lab where I am currently finishing my dissertation work. Given that getting a loan was not an option to complete my Ph.D. studies, I approached VPS to see if I could continue to work on my dissertation work in stroke research, and work part time with them in advancing the technology and they agreed for me to come on board. Thanks to their support I was able to keep working on my dissertation research and simultaneously work at VPS on animal experiments to submit an FDA application for approval by early 2018.

As a graduate student in the Translational Science program, working with VPS has been one of the most educational and professionally rewarding experiences in my graduate career. I have been able to see first-hand translational science at work. In graduate school, they teach us about the process of translational science, as a very long journey in taking discoveries from the laboratory out to the patient. It is very different learning this from a lecture in a classroom than to be part of this process in the real world. Working with VPS has given me the experience of seeing translational science in action, and discovering my future career as a translational scientist, and all thanks to a required practicum course for my TL1 fellowship.

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