Director’s Corner

June 3, 2021: NCATS and Translational Science: Contributing to a Post-COVID-19 Pandemic World

Joni L. Rutter

Vaccination rates within the United States have passed 40% and are growing — an incredibly impressive feat when we remember that we are about 15 months from the beginning of the pandemic. Although that’s an amazing achievement, we are not out of the woods yet. We will need more than vaccines to combat SARS-CoV-2. We will need to ramp up our efforts on therapeutics, particularly by fostering a robust preclinical ecosystem for developing new therapeutics. We also will need to build on both our clinical trial workforce and our outreach and recruitment strategies to streamline and accelerate clinical work.

Of course, we can say this for just about every disease, not just COVID-19. The beauty of the NCATS approach is that the collaboration, platforms, tools and resources that we deployed against SARS-CoV-2 can — and must — be applied to all diseases.

I often am asked about key observations from the past year. With many to choose from, one that stands out is how everyone collaborated and asked, “How can I help?” Because of the team-based nature of translational science and its strategies to enable rapid and efficient translation of research for better health, NCATS and our stakeholders came together and helped lead the way on many different projects.

Highlighted efforts include:

All these achievements were possible only through incredible collaborations within NCATS, throughout NIH, and across stakeholder communities — and all were accomplished while working in a largely remote environment.

This work — and our response to the pandemic — has been relentless. We’ve witnessed and participated in the most remarkable scientific endeavors in our lifetimes. The pandemic taught us that we have to rethink challenges — such as the viscosity around data sharing — and reconsider ingrained approaches, like the familiar collaborations that are our default comfort zones. Translational science is about breaking these boundaries.

Soon, we will need to figure out how to get back to a steadier pace and how to leverage what we’ve learned, the relationships we’ve built, and the efficiencies that we’ve gained to move forward on so many other initiatives. If we go back to the way we had been doing things, we will be doing a disservice to all the patients who need our help.

Another question I am asked is: “What’s next for NCATS?” I am so excited about the possibilities of building on the Center’s successes and the firm foundation of our translational science mission. For the immediate next steps, we have much to do:

  • Build and strengthen relationships with our partners and forge new ones. Translational science is a team sport, and we rely on our partners from academia, industry, patient and research advocacy organizations, and other federal agencies.
  • Expand our repertoire of platform technologies that will enable us to tackle multiple diseases at a time, especially rare diseases.
  • Sharpen our efforts in data science and the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) in initiatives such as Translator and N3C, and extend AI/ML to other areas, including the chemical and biological space, which will drive the development of new drugs or speed the search for existing treatments that could be used for other diseases.
  • Continue to build on the momentum of our collective efforts to combat the pandemic, specifically through the clinical trial design, implementation, and outreach and engagement efforts of the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Program.
  • Train the next generation of translational scientists through innovative approaches.

NCATS exists to drive transformational innovation in the preclinical and clinical space to turn observations into health solutions through translational science. Our work on developing and applying translational science strategies makes us nimble in the face of challenging circumstances and allows us to charge through scientific or operational barriers to get results for the people who need them. We shaped our role in this pandemic by asking, “How can we help?” and demonstrating our willingness to take on risk in the face of an unknown infectious disease. Without risk, we cannot fail. Without failure, we cannot learn. Without learning, we cannot thrive.

We have thrived. And we have so much more do.

Your partner in science and health,

Joni L. Rutter, Ph.D.
Acting Director
National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences