Director’s Corner

April 15, 2021: The work of translational science has just begun

Christopher P. Austin

This is the most difficult NCATS Director’s Message I have ever had to write, because it will be my last. April 15 is my last day leading this wonderful, unique, science-driven, health impact–focused organization. As I look back on my 10 years at NCATS, I am struck by how different — and how much better — the translational sciences world looks now than it did in 2011, when NCATS was founded. I have been asked many times during the last month what I consider to be NCATS’ greatest accomplishments during my tenure as director. Although it is an impossible question to answer comprehensively, given the number and variety of field-changing innovations that NCATS has catalyzed during that time, I will venture a few here:

  • We led the establishment of the field of translational science and the communication of its potential and mission to get more treatments to more patients more quickly by transforming the development of treatments and cures from an inefficient empirical process into a productive predictive science.
  • We fostered development of such breakthrough technologies as tissue chips, mechanisms for drug repurposing, technology platforms to efficiently identify new drugs, and informatics platforms that connect disparate information across disease. These technologies all address key roadblocks to the development of treatments and provide a road map for predictive identification of therapies ready for human testing.
  • We have created and promulgated new ways to develop therapeutics of all modalities that are reaching uncharted biology and untreatable diseases with unprecedented efficiency.
  • We have driven the evolution of unique national clinical translational platforms — including the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Program and Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network (RDCRN) into networked, science- and patient-driven innovation engines at the local, regional and national level. These platforms have demonstrated unmatched ability to solve such intransigent problems as multisite institutional review board review, recruitment of diverse clinical trial participants, more productive clinical trial designs, innovative clinical investigator training, and mobilization of electronic health records to drive discovery.
  • We have shifted the scientific approach to rare diseases from one disease at a time to many diseases at a time and have transformed the scientific, medical and public perception of rare diseases from a curiosity to a major public health problem.

A key ingredient to all these remarkable successes has been a culture of informed, persistent and patient focused questioning of how translation could be done better. Teamwork also has been an ironclad rule — the more diverse our translational science teams are, the more productive our projects have been.

I am confident that the translational science team at NCATS and its thousands of grantees, contractors, supporters and collaborators will continue the logarithmic growth and flourishing of our field. As of April 15, Joni Rutter, Ph.D., will serve as the acting NCATS director. Joni has been NCATS deputy director since January 2019, and she will bring to her new position the deep commitment to innovation and patient-impactful translational science that she has demonstrated as my partner on every major decision affecting NCATS for more than 2 years.

Lastly, please know that although I have decided that NCATS is in such a great state that I can move on to new translational challenges, I will be performing related work and will remain a relentless cheerleader for NCATS and translational science.

I leave you all with thanks and the parting requests I made to the NCATS staff not long ago:

  1. Value one another. You have remarkable colleagues.
  2. Value the mission. It is so important to so many people who are looking to us for hope and treatments.
  3. Value the culture. It truly is unique, and such cultures are fragile and need constant renewing.
  4. Remember that innovation is an attitude that requires ongoing energy to maintain and keep the entropy of the status quo at bay. And never, ever stop being bold.

Farewell,

Christopher P. Austin, M.D.
Director
National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences