U to push clinical science

Hayley Odom

If knowledge that could cure cancer were discovered today, it might take 17 years before patients could benefit from it.

Through a plan that emphasizes clinical science, the University is attempting to shorten that delay.

A partnership between the University, Fairview Health Services and University of Minnesota Physicians, a group of physicians and faculty from the University’s medical school, aims to revive clinical science on campus.

Clinical science is the final step scientists take after researching a new discovery. It determines whether new therapies, medicines or practices actually work.

It also shortens the time it takes for discoveries in the lab to benefit patients.

“If you want a top-shelf medical school and a top-shelf academic health center, you have to have a top-shelf clinical science program that encompasses scholarship, research development, clinical practice and education,” said Academic Health Center Senior Vice President Frank Cerra. “That’s the framework for this.”

Cerra said the plan includes investing in faculty, upgrading the University’s capacity to perform clinical research and building renewed facilities. He said many of the projects are expected to be finished by 2009.

Faculty Decline

The number of faculty performing clinical research has dropped nationally and at the University within the last 10 years, Cerra said.

University physicians and faculty often pursue other medical careers, Cerra said. Reasons include lack of mentoring programs and a shortage of tenured clinical science professors.

Douglas Yee, a professor of medicine and a Cancer Center clinical scientist, said he hopes the outcomes of the partnership will convince more of his colleagues and trainees to consider working in the field.

“A big advantage at the University is there are a lot of great scientists within the research aspect who can improve clinical care,” he said. “The University is an ideal setting to bring findings made in basic science laboratories forward for clinical trials.”

The partnership is intended to attract faculty interested in clinical research. Such faculty will in turn attract students to the University, said Roby Thompson, associate Medical School dean and University of Minnesota Physicians chief executive.

The Academic Health Center took a step in that direction when it appointed Medical School Dean, Deborah Powell, to assistant vice president for clinical sciences. She said a new clinical scholar track was created to attract prospective students and faculty to the field.

Building Issues

Although the University performs approximately 200 clinical trials each day, the trials do not take place in a centralized facility.

“The current clinics just don’t work. We’ve far exceeded the number of people we were designed to see,” Cerra said. “They’re very hard to get access to and it’s hard to deliver today’s care in facilities that are old.”

Besides consolidating and updating clinical facilities, the partnership’s plan includes moving the Fairview-University Medical Center to a single site on the East Bank of the University campus.

It also hopes to replace and unify the children’s facilities – which are a major hub for clinical research on campus.

“With our children’s services being spread all over, it seems logical to consolidate it into a single children’s hospital,” Fairview Health Services Chief Executive David Page said.

“If you look at running a major teaching hospital, it is logical that these services be located on one side of the river,” Page said.

Currently, Fairview-University Medical Center is located on the East and West Bank sides of the Mississippi River.

In order to consolidate the facilities, the plan might require relocating some of the dormitories on the East Bank, according to the partnership’s executive summary.

It includes four scenarios for the building sites.

The first scenario does not include using any current residence hall sites. The second includes the use of Pioneer Hall and a parcel of land on East River Road. The third requires the use of Pioneer Hall and the fourth scenario requires the use of Centennial Hall.

The Board of Regents will receive recommendations for the proposed sites this fall.

Moving Forward

In the late 1990s, the University’s hospital was on the brink of failure. Projections at that time stated if the University continued to keep it, a $30 million deficit would develop over the next 10 years.

In 1997, the University sold the hospital to Fairview Health Services, which is when the clinical sciences revitalization began.

The University and its counterparts first devoted their resources to basic sciences, which concentrates on new discoveries. It then invested in translational sciences, which takes that knowledge and transforms it into therapies and cures.

Investment in clinical sciences is the final part of the University’s plan.

“To complete the package of taking something from a basic science lab to a translational lab to applied clinical research is what we’re working towards,” Thompson said.

Page said he thinks it’s an exciting time for the University.

“It’s gelled into a very logical set of steps that everyone feels good about,” he said.