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Margaret Anderson

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Top 10 Medical Research Trends to Watch in 2012

Posted: 01/05/12 02:55 PM ET

1. NCATS: Who moved my cheese?

This year, the National Institutes of Health will establish its new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), created to speed the translation of basic discoveries into therapies that will improve public health. In light of our current fiscal reality (and limitations), we breathed a sigh of relief to see it up and prioritized in the appropriations process. Solutions can be tough to develop, and tougher to implement. How will NIH translate its translational focus to its cadre of basic research-focused scientists? Will NCATS strengthen and streamline existing efforts at the 26 other institutes and centers? Will it help to move discoveries out of the lab and to patients more quickly? NCATS is one way to get moving (and, as we know, "movement in a new direction helps you find new cheese"). The stakes are high with more than 100 million patients waiting for meaningful treatments options. But with Dr. Francis Collins as the visionary behind this effort, the same man who defied expectations by completing the Human Genome Project ahead of schedule and under budget, we like the odds.

2. FDA: The science of failure.

Companies usually turn to the FDA to help them succeed (and with 35 approvals in FY2011, it helped many succeed), but perhaps it can also help them fail, faster. Commissioner Hamburg seems committed to having FDA play a role in improving R&D efficiency for all. FDA is sitting on mountains of data, and she has made it a priority -- through the agency's Strategic Plan for Advancing Regulatory Science and specific efforts like the PACES Initiative -- to figure out how to share more of it, particularly from compounds that were not approved, to help researchers and companies learn from failures. Will the industry see its self-interest in this and allow data to be shared -- and recognize that there is a business case for opening up the file cabinet?

3. Intellectual property: Keep it simple, stupid.

Everyone in medical research seems to agree that intellectual property is a significant issue slowing progress, from disagreements over the value of discoveries to the time it takes for agreements to be negotiated, and the aversion to standardized contracting. We say, why does this need to be so complicated? Can't we come up with a simple set of guiding principles or values that we all agree to abide by -- something along the lines of Google's "Don't be evil"? Ideas, anyone?

4. Cures on the stump.

Last time we checked, 2012 was a presidential election year. Will life sciences make an appearance on the agenda? The Obama Administration is working on a National Bioeconomy Blueprint to "harness biological research innovations to address national challenges in health, food, energy, and the environment" -- oh, and of course to "grow the jobs of the future." What commitments will the candidates make to support this critical economic driver -- whether NIH funding, tax policies for industry, workforce training, etc.? Can we make innovation in the life sciences a topic du jour in the election season?

5. 2012: Year of the Patient?

TIME magazine notably called 2011 the "year of the protester." Could 2012 be the "year of the patient"? We offered up a roadmap to effective activism in 2011, built on the example of the HIV/AIDS advocacy movement. We identified its ingredients for success as attention, knowledge and solutions, community, accountability and leadership. Many of us point to the successes this movement created in HIV/AIDS drug development. Thirty years later, will more groups seize the mantle and make 2012 as much about changing the research and regulatory paradigm as about raising more money and awareness?

6. Reimbursement is the new approval.

Even if we are successful at getting new treatments through the R&D and approval process, the question remains whether payers (government and private) will be willing to pick up the tab. Insurance coverage decisions -- and insurers themselves -- are playing a role farther upstream in the R&D and investment process, as companies begin to craft their research priorities and programs to maximize the possibility of reimbursement. Can payers position themselves as part of the solution to getting truly innovative therapies to patients? CMS is currently seeking comments on a revamp of its "coverage with evidence development" program. Could this become a model for other insurers to get patients access to new treatments while continuing to generate data about its effectiveness? Will smaller companies start reading the tea leaves and work with payers to avoid "failure to launch"?

7. HIT: If we build it, will research come?

The federal government has succeeded in driving a doubling of providers' adoption of health IT over the last two years through its stimulus funding. But their interest in ensuring all this data is available for research to drive new, more effective treatments for patients is still not evident. "Meaningful use" of electronic health records (EHR) to qualify for federal funding seems to have been an effective carrot/stick combination for driving adoption of EHR systems for patient care. Let's use it in the service of research by requiring that using EHR systems for clinical trial screening and matching be included as a measure for meaningful use in the next round of definitions. Unlike the "Field of Dreams," just because we built the infrastructure, research use will not magically appear.

8. CTSAs: Who you gonna call?

The first five years of NIH's Clinical and Translational Sciences Awards (CTSA) program are over, and by many accounts the focus at most of the 60 institutions has been on standing up the program on their own campuses, not on maximizing the power of the network. That may start to change in 2012 with the creation of a new Coordinating Center at Vanderbilt, which is already ramping up development of tools and resources, such as a shared IRBs, contract language, IP database and research data capture. Its director, Gordon Bernard, wants to make it a "virtual institute of drug development," a one-stop shop for companies, investors or nonprofit funders looking for academic partners. At Partnering for Cures 2011, he invited participants to contact him with their needs, saying that until the right partners are in place "we'll own that problem." So give him a call.

9. Putting old wine in new bottles.

Enthusiasm continues to grow in academia and among patient groups for the idea of repurposing existing compounds. Companies, if they're interested at all, are looking for some sort of exclusivity mechanism to allow them to make money. NIH sees this as a central opportunity for NCATS (see #1), and NIH's TRND program is piloting a repurposing effort with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the University of Kansas as partners, with the aim of recruiting an industry partner. But pilots won't be enough; there needs to be funding sources identified, IP policies sorted out and regulatory pathways clarified. Could 2012 be the year we create a business model to support repurposing? Tick tock goes the clock. Patients are waiting.

10. Convergence of venture capital and venture philanthropy.

Venture capital investment in life sciences is on the wane, but venture philanthropy investment in drug development is on the rise. We're hearing discussion in several quarters about the idea of blending venture capital and venture philanthropy in some sort of hybrid investment fund. The wider world of social entrepreneurship has been experimenting with business models and forms of capital all along the spectrum from not-for-profit to for-profit for some time; the field of medical research is slow to catch up. We'll be watching for the launch of one or more of these efforts in 2012. Look for more discussion of financial innovations for translational research from FasterCures in 2012 as well.

Read FasterCuresTop 10 lists from previous years:

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