Paving the Way for Discovery

UAB Center for Clinical and Translational Science

By Tara Hulen

MedWint13-CCTSIf technology transfer is a journey between the laboratory bench and the patient’s bedside, then the role of the UAB Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS) is to gas up the engine and clear the road. The interdisciplinary center exists to make research more efficient, in other words—to help scientists reduce any friction that might slow a breakthrough’s progress.

“We drive the collaborative culture of discovery and innovation in life science and human health for UAB,” explains Kimberly, who directs the CCTS. “It’s a network; it’s team science. We drive the team.” Sometimes it’s about bringing together investigators with different skills but matching interests, he explains. Or it’s providing them with the research support and resources they need to move a discovery along the translational pipeline. By making research more efficient, the CCTS can help to develop new and more efficient ways of delivering medical care, Kimberly says.

The CCTS is active across the spectrum of translational research, from fundamental studies in the earliest phases of development through the different phases of clinical trials. CCTS grants can help jump-start research projects, while access to experts in biostatistics, epidemiology, data management, regulations, and outcomes and effectiveness research offers crucial support for developing studies and interpreting findings. The center also provides an entire clinical research unit for phase 1 and 2 clinical trials with patients.

Group Project

Collaborations within universities—and larger collaborations with centers doing similar research elsewhere—are speeding drug discovery and FDA approval of new drug therapies, Kimberly says. At UAB, the lines that define which entity does what are clear in some cases and collaborative in others, but the process is designed to capitalize on each group’s strengths. “It’s unusual for folks to wear only one hat,” Kimberly adds. For example, the CCTS has the capacity to look at the metabolism of a compound and its distribution in the body, “working in a synergistic fashion with the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance (ADDA) and Southern Research (SR),” he says. “SR has a lot of pharmaceutical contracts and a discovery unit, which means it has heightened drug-capacity screening, but when it comes to using human specimens, SR works with CCTS in the clinical research unit. ADDA is a mechanism to bring together people with experience in drug development, and those people are from the CCTS, Comprehensive Cancer Center, SR, and so on. We work as a team, bringing our scientific expertise as well as our organizational expertise.”

UAB scientists also can connect with patient populations and researchers across the country though the CCTS, which is one of 60 institutional recipients of the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA). Kimberly explains that the CTSA is a National Institutes of Health initiative to improve human health through transformation of institutional research infrastructure to enhance the efficiency and quality of clinical and translational research. “Being a CTSA institution not only makes us part of this national investigative scene, but it also makes us generators of information that goes into that mix,” Kimberly says.

Kimberly says the CCTS is involved in “both taking de novo discoveries that are UAB-driven and moving them along the pipeline and working with new compounds and therapeutics that might be developed by external companies and researched at UAB under contract.”

For example, the CCTS has worked with the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center to study a monoclonal antibody that might be used in cancer treatment. UAB identified a suitable target, developed the antibody, and studied its biology, Kimberly says. “And then, in partnership with a large pharmaceutical company, that therapeutic monoclonal was humanized, and safety in preclinical models was established.” The CCTS and the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center then coordinated the phase 1 studies in humans.

CCTS-supported research is also advancing diagnostics, such as a project examining a biomarker that may predict the efficiency of certain therapeutic monoclonal antibodies. “We’re working in partnership with other groups on campus, and the CCTS provided the critical capacity for biospecimens and analysis,” Kimberly explains.

The CCTS also recently received a $1.5-million award from the Alabama Innovation Fund, part of the Accelerate Alabama state economic development plan that targets high-tech research. Combined with federal and institutional support, “these funds will enhance the translation of fundamental discovery to human health” and “lead to novel therapeutic targets for drug discovery and development,” Kimberly says. He adds that the combined investments will boost the economy, with the potential of creating up to 60 jobs in the state.