[March 2009] Medical research typically advances on two separate fronts: in clinical trials and the laboratory. But in recent years translational medicine has become common, a team approach in which lab scientists and clinical researchers join forces to tackle a specific problem. Medical oncologist Lyndsay N. Harris, MD, who co-directs the Yale Breast Cancer Program, is an expert on such partnerships. “The goal is to get those people together in the sandbox and have them start talking to one another,” she says. “The era of the monolithic scientist is really either gone or almost gone.” Translational researchers aim to advance research insights and help patients faster than basic science or clinical research could do separately. “[It] is really a specialty in and of itself.”
At Yale Medical Group (YMG), Harris assembles teams of researchers and clinicians who collaborate on studies and grants for breast cancer research. She is in a good position to do so, as she plays several roles herself. As a clinician, she treats patients in the clinic; as a clinical researcher, she runs clinical trials at the Breast Cancer Center; and as a basic scientist she designs lab experiments to elucidate the mechanism of breast cancer treatments. Moving among these three worlds allows her the perspective a translational researcher needs. “We incorporate novel new biological and new treatment strategies into our clinical trials,” she says. “The research insights into the biology of breast cancer have allowed us to develop new biological treatments, such as antibodies against specific targets.”
Translational research is not without controversy, with some basic scientists concerned that a “team approach” will force them to put important basic research questions aside or do tasks they weren’t trained for. But Harris says the point is not to hamper pure science or make everyone into a translational researcher—rather, it is to see to it that all kinds of researchers communicate. When basic scientists interact with clinicians, she says, “[they] start to think about what’s really happening in people, and it improves his or her ability to do their job.
“You have to be just as rigorous in translational research as you do in any other specialty,” says Harris. “But it requires the merging of a couple of different mindsets, and that’s a challenge.”
- Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Yale Practice.
Name: Lyndsay N. Harris, MD
Title: Associate professor of medicine and codirector, Breast Cancer Program
Areas of expertise: Medical oncology; breast cancer and triple negative breast cancer; cancer disparities
Place of birth: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
College: University of Alberta in Edmonton
Med school: University of Alberta
Training: Internal medicine, University of Alberta; medical oncology fellowship, Georgetown University
Family: Husband, Thomas Quinn, APRN, who co-directs the Survivorship Clinic at Yale Cancer Center and writes Pallimed, a blog about hospice and palliative medicine; children, Stephanie, 13; Brian, 22
What is most challenging to you in academic medicine? Having to fight for resources in an environment … where the resources are becoming scarce.
What is most rewarding? A combination of working with patients who are very inspiring and keep you humble … and making new discoveries in the lab and in the research area.
What do you like most about your practice? There are a lot of really nice people here at Yale that I work with—a lot of really caring people that love patients and want to help them. That makes me feel good.
Personal interests or pastimes: Reading poetry, especially that of T.S. Eliot and Pablo Neruda; listening to philosophy lectures by The Teaching Company
Last book read: The Teaching of Buddha, by Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai
What would you do to improve our clinical environment if you had a magic wand? I would just try to make the systems a little bit more efficient … it makes life a lot easier for everybody, and you can do better patient care.