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The UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences' strategy that aims to take research from "lab bench to bedside"
By Deb Pedraza and Juan Pedraza
To accomplish that strategy, the School recently appointed Marc Basson, MD, PhD, MBA, FACS, to the post of senior associate dean for medicine and research; and Brij Singh, PhD, as assistant dean for
“I am so pleased that Drs. Basson and Singh have accepted these additional responsibilities,” said UND Vice President for Health Affairs and SMHS Dean Joshua Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH, in a release about the selection of Basson and Singh to their expanded portfolios.
“We have just come off our most successful year ever from the standpoint of external funding, and I expect the dynamic duo of Marc and Brij to help guide us to even greater heights of achievement,” Wynne said.
In a wide-ranging interview about the thinking behind the new strategy, Basson said the new strategy focusing on translational research involves more than just new efforts in the lab. “I see this new focus as building bridges between researchers and clinicians to help us get more research results to patients,” said Basson, himself an administrator, teacher, and active researcher. “This is a national issue: we know that we already do excellent research here, but we need to close the gap between the researchers (the bench) and patients (the bedside). This is all about improving health outcomes.”
Basson points to the good science behind a promising drug therapy, for example.
“In order for that drug to affect health outcomes, the challenge is to get doctors to prescribe it,” Basson said. “Thus we see the fundamental mission of the medical school is to do research that improves the health of North Dakota.”
“North Dakota’s challenge is that we don’t have an army of clinicians in a university hospital that is connected to our med school, so there’s effectively a separation of scientists and clinicians,” he
said. “Our researchers today do not have as much contact with doctors or patient samples as we would like; so the translational aspect of research is hampered.”
So, he adds, the “Bench to Bedside” conundrum is how to bridge that gap.
“It’s a fundamental challenge,” Basson said. “So much so that the National Institutes of Health [NIH] is funding initiatives nationally to bring the bench closer to the bedside.”
“We’re building bridges between clinicians and our good basic scientific enterprise, as well as bridges between clinicians and health research folk, such as those at our Center for Rural Health and our Master of Public Health Program in our Department of Population Health,” Basson said.
Part of the School’s new research strategy includes tapping into data accumulated by Sanford Health and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“That’s also part of seeing more bridges built,” Basson said. “We want to encourage clinicians to collaborate with researchers; there’s a dividend for both sides. We must help them become more
productive and help direct their work toward a translational bent.”
Basson says he knows firsthand what this big challenge adds up to—it’s definitely a balancing act that requires effective time management.
“Today,” he said during the interview, “is a typical day for me. I started out with rounds at the hospital; then I did some administrative work; I just came up from two hours in my lab; then after this
interview, I’ll go back to the clinic. Yes, it’s a lot to juggle, but the ability to move back and forth is very useful to me.”
Basson’s NIH funding focuses on regulation of intestinal epithelial differentiation, which has direct clinical relevance in relation to fasting, starvation, and short gut syndrome; indirectly, it’s related to bariatric surgery and weight loss surgery—trying to understand the biology of what happens.
“And I always ask myself ‘What am I going to do with the results once I’ve done the research,’ ” he said. “Pure science is fun. But what does one do with the findings once they’re known? Our Legislature expects findings to be beneficial to North Dakota citizens, and the NIH wants research to be clinically significant.”
In terms of the bridges he’s talking about, the advantage of the translational focus of research—partnerships with clinicians—is having someone to talk to about findings.
“So we’re actually talking about ‘bench to bedside’ and ‘bedside to bench’—it’s a two-way exchange,” Basson said. “We need to match expertise between clinicians and researcher.”
At the administrative level, the new research strategy is about clearly understanding what each member of the research team is up to and what resources each has—intellectual resources in particular—that can be used by others to reach a common goal.
“We’re here to facilitate our researchers to do what they are trying to do, to advocate for clinical and translational research, and to break down barriers so everyone can do their work better,” Basson said.
Basson’s teammate in this effort is Brij Singh, a longtime biomedical scientist at the School who focuses on calcium metabolism—one of the vital minerals that help to keep us alive. His research interests also include cell proliferation, autophagy and cell death, neuronal physiology and neurodegeneration, epigenetics, and stem cells.
“My new role is to look after what all research portfolios are and to find ways to improve them,” Singh said. “We’ve been very successful in building research capabilities in biomedical sciences, especially in our focus areas—neurosciences, epigenetics and cancer biology, and host-pathogen interactions.”
But echoing Dr. Basson’s take, Singh said, “We’ve been lacking in translation to clinical and applied forms—actually, it’s a bottleneck for the whole nation.”
Singh says he himself welcomes the opportunity to work with a clinical team “so that we can make more discoveries that are useful to patients. We want to increase interaction between these groups—scientists and clinicians—to improve things for patients.”
About Marc Basson
Basson is an educator, scientist, and surgeon who is recognized internationally for his research on the extracellular physical forces that affect intracellular signaling in cancer biology and the healing of the gastrointestinal tract of critically ill or injured patients. All of the clinical department chairs as well as the regional campus deans and the UND-sponsored residency programs report to Basson, who has been associate dean for medicine at the SMHS since August 2015.
About Brij Singh
Singh is an accomplished senior biomedical scientist who has been at the SMHS since 2003, where he has helped build an internationally recognized program studying molecular
mechanisms of particular types of calcium channels in normal and pathological conditions. The well-known nature of his research has garnered Singh strong and consistent funding for his research, particularly continuous funding with the highest level of grants and awards from the National Institutes of Health. In May of 2016, Singh was selected by his peers to be a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, the highest honor the University
can bestow upon its faculty. Singh reports to Basson.