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What It Takes To Get A Medical Research Breakthrough

  • April 12, 2016
  • 6 min read
What It Takes To Get A Medical Research Breakthrough

What It Takes To Get A Medical Research Breakthrough

Where does the money go when you donate to medical research studies? Although the question is simple enough, the answer is fairly complicated.

Besides the cost of employing the best researchers in a speciality, using the finest facilities, and accessing the most cutting-edge equipment, medical research also has many stringent requirements for certain aspects, lab equipment and biological storage in a biobank, that can raise the costs. In other words, the money is spent in many diverse aspects of running the research study.

While it may take years of long and patient effort to come up with medical breakthroughs, when they do occur they can be stunning.


Defining A Medical Breakthrough

However, before we look at what it takes to get a medical breakthrough, let’s get a clear understanding of the term. It’s important to make this distinction because medical research itself is often hyped up as breakthrough by public excitement and the popular press.

Medical research can promise the cure for a chronic disease, the discovery of a new form of pharmaceutical treatment, or an innovative device. However the potential of researchers discovering what they hope to find based on the latest information is seldom guaranteed.

For instance, at the turn of the century, US president Bill Clinton announced that the first draft of the human genome project was completed. There was a lot of excitement about the possibilities of getting a comprehensive map of human genetics. Scientists projected that any genetic abnormalities could be detected early enough to formulate effective intervention.

Unfortunately, even though scientists discovered that humans only have 20,000 genes compared to the previous estimate of 100,000 genes, the information was not easy to understand genetic sequencing. Today, scientists still continue to be baffled by the complexity of genetic information and there are many gaps in our understanding of how genes are regulated and what roles they play in human development.

While there was a breakthrough in human understanding about our genetic makeup, it was not a medical breakthrough. However, the future of genetic research remains promising because of the efficacy of Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technologies.

In other words, despite the excitement, there was no actual medical breakthrough…just the possibility of one.

A real medical breakthrough, on the other hand, is a hallmark event. Essentially, it’s a radical change in how a disease is diagnosed or treated.

To understand this nebulous point about the difference between promising research and a medical breakthrough, let’s take a look at a real example of a medical breakthrough.

A Medical Breakthrough In Heart Transplants

The idea of a body transplant from a cadaver was considered impossible. The donor has to be alive for the organ to still retain its vitality. However, as recently as 2014, Australian scientists found a method to revive dead hearts from cadavers and transplant them into patients.

Twenty minutes after a person’s heart has stopped beating, it can be put inside a machine that supplies it with oxygen. Before an operation, when the heart is removed from the machine, it is injected with a preserving solution that keeps it fresh.

In an interview by journalist Elizabeth Jackson, Professor Bob Graham from the Victor Chang Institute, who led the research team, explained how it all worked: “Both the preservation solution and the console that allows the heart to be kept warm and beating and have blood going through it and getting oxygen and both of them are extremely important and I think if either had come alone, we would have a slight improvement but we wouldn’t have been able to do what we’ve done.”

Besides the convenience of getting a heart that doesn’t require a live donor, there is also the astonishing fact that the heart can be seen to be beating at a steady rate before it is inserted in a patient. Prior to this new type of heart transplant, the surgeon did not know whether the heart they were inserting into a recipient would work properly. Now surgeons know that the heart is functioning properly before someone receives it.

It is estimated that this new way of heart surgery will save as much as 30 percent more lives.


Steps Involved In Clinical Research

Generally, clinical research may play a crucial role in getting a medical research breakthrough. It refers to the process of collecting information and systematically investigating a specific subject matter to establish principles and facts which will be part of the research. This procedure may involve many things, including diseases, medical conditions, treatments, cures, and other related processes. 

In other words, clinical research requires researchers to use their knowledge to find an effective treatment or prevent a disease from developing further and damaging a person’s body. For example, clinical research on a dermatology subject may need a company like a dermatology CRO or contract research organization that can provide guidance on the study’s design and logistics. They can also help ensure that viable outcomes are achieved throughout the research program.

Hence, with all the aspects involved in the process, clinical research is indeed a long, convoluted path to discovery, but it is not incomprehensible. In fact, it is remarkably well-structured. There are essentially 7 formal steps to conducting clinical research:

  1. The first step is to design an excellent clinical research plan of action. How does the researcher propose to do the research?
  2. The second step is to make all the necessary preparations for the research. Where will the research be conducted? Who will be involved? What equipment is necessary?
  3. The third step is getting approval. For instance, if the research is done in a university, the proposed research has to be approved by the relevant departments.
  4. The fourth step is a review of whether the research may cause harm to the subjects and whether it is within federal regulatory guidelines.
  5. The fifth step is doing the research and reporting on results as they occur.
  6. The sixth step is a continuing review of the research. Basically, this is an annual review to see if the research is going according to established guidelines.
  7. The seventh and final step is ending the study. This is the stage where all the data has been collected and reviewed and conclusions made.

Although there are only 7 steps, each step may take a considerable amount of time, money, and effort. Essentially, clinical research is all about structuring the process of discovery. Sometimes, when there is a perfect storm and all the data lines up, the research may lead to a medical breakthrough like the one made by the Victor Chang Institute on a new way to do heart transplants. 

However, it’s important to know that getting a medical research breakthrough on a particular subject doesn’t happen overnight. Depending on the insights and findings gathered from these clinical research studies, it may take months or years to achieve a breakthrough. But no matter how long it takes, a medical breakthrough can be a game-changer in the healthcare industry. Whether it’s the development of new drugs or treatment methods, a medical research breakthrough can improve the quality of life. 

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