IBM R&D Labs in Israel News

What is translational medicine?

And how do we bring genetic research, biology, information systems, data analytics, and more to the patient's bedside?


When Amnon Shabo sent out invitations to the full day seminar he organized on translational medicine, he knew people might have a hard time understanding how the various talks were connected. From presentations on hard core biology, through information systems and knowledge extraction, and on to financial incentives and psychology—the program topics seemed, well, unrelated.

"That's exactly what translational medicine is about," explained Shabo, researcher at IBM's Haifa Lab and head of the healthcare and life sciences standards program for IBM. "It's an interdisciplinary endeavor where we bring together independent studies from diverse fields and discover how we can translate their results into better care for patients."

Translational medicine is not just bench-to-bedside efforts or personalized healthcare. It is the convergence of all factors that could make a new treatment available to everybody, on a routine basis. For example, socio-economics, behavioral psychology, and ethical considerations are all factors that can be just as crucial in the success or failure of new treatments being tested on patients.

Integrating diverse inputs to help patients

Translational medicine integrates research inputs from the basic sciences, social sciences and political sciences to optimize patient care and develop preventive measures that extend beyond the existing provision of healthcare services. In a similar manner, the medical informatics day held recently in Haifa, with a focus on translational medicine, brought together scientists, researchers, and professionals from a variety of disciplines. The idea was to share knowledge and understand how collaboration among the disciplines can ultimately help get new treatments to patients and improve their well-being.

Translational medicine typically deals with overcoming three translational barriers:

  1. Bench to bedside – where researchers work on hypotheses in the lab, but these are not always practical when it comes to implementation at the point of care.
  2. Bedside to community - where even if the solution works for individual patients, it can't always be implemented on a large scale due to, for example, limitations with the hospitals or the need for acceptance within the medical community.
  3. Community to policy – where the solution has already been implemented on a community level, but now faces a new set of challenges becoming part of a diagnostic kit or standardized as a legitimate medical process, including acceptance by insurance companies.

"Although people are concerned with various challenges of translational medicine, most haven't given much thought to how we can overcome them," noted Shabo. "Interestingly, at the panel discussion in the end of the seminar, there was a focus on the physician of the future. With both the doctor and patient getting so much information from the Internet, we need drastic changes in the supporting infrastructures, before they can start working together as a cohesive team."

Practical applications of eclectic ideas

The seminar's program included talks about patient empowerment, new research into Alzheimer's and Parkinson's genetic background, new genetic biomarkers of depression, the influence of culture and ethnicity, and how to make new medical knowledge more available and accessible online. One specialist in informatics from the University of Haifa is working on making today's clinical guidelines immediately accessible to physicians in an online system. This would help doctors search for information, even while sitting with patients.

Another interesting blend was the countries of origin for the seminar's participants. Scientists, researchers, and medical experts came from Italy, Germany, Switzerland, the United States, and Israel.

Joe Jasinski, IBM Distinguished Engineer and global executive for smarter healthcare and life sciences, noted the practical aspects of translational medicine in a panel of experts. "New things in the lab are always very innovative but they don't always impact the world – whether for economic or ethical or social or other reasons," noted Jasinski. "Sometimes they're just ahead of their time. But if you can bring an innovation to the point where it is truly practical, then it has tremendous potential value."

Based on feedback from the speakers and participants, the eclectic blend of topics and participants was perceived as being incredibly relevant and valuable to everyone – "a new concept for conferences in the Israeli arena" – wrote one of the speakers, and many indicated their wish to see such conference held on an annual basis. As emphasized by Shabo, "This is clearly an area in which IBM can excel, because we have the capabilities to combine the many different factors involved and bring efficiency and flow to the system. The end result is that the impact of advances across the spectrum of medical fields is felt where it matters the most—at the patients' bedsides."