Medical science just got faster.
A new institute that will move medical research along more quickly from mice to humans is set to open this month and has just announced its inaugural study: a promising way to fight obesity.
The Translational Research Institute for Metabolism and Diabetes — a joint venture between Florida Hospital and Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute of Lake Nona — will open its 54,000-square-foot facility across from Florida Hospital's main Orlando campus at the end of the month.
Meanwhile, scientists are gearing up for the kickoff study announced Tuesday. The study will look at the effects of a brain hormone that appears to speed metabolism and aid weight loss.
The study is a classic example of fundamental research that if moved quickly from the bench to the bedside could benefit patients sooner, said Dr. Steve Smith, obesity researcher and scientific director for TRI.
Building off findings that bodies store two kinds of fat, Sanford-Burnham scientists looked into what made one type actually burn calories.
The catalyst, they found, appears to be a brain hormone called orexin, said lead researcher Devanjan Sikder, assistant professor in Sanford-Burnham's Diabetes and Obesity Research Center. "Our data indicate that orexin leads to weight loss by releasing excess energy [in one type of fat] as heat instead of storing it."
The hormone reduced fat in mice by 50 percent, even when the mice overate. The inaugural study for TRI — a collaboration that began in 2006 — will look at whether the same will hold true in humans.
Science takes a long time to trickle down to patients for several reasons, Smith said. Research by nature is methodical and painstaking, but another reason for the lag is because doctors in labs and those treating patients often don't get together.
The translational center aims to fix that by "creating more synergy between the two camps," said Smith.
How study was picked
To select which study would be the institute's first, Smith polled Sanford-Burnham scientists and asked them to submit studies that could be candidates for a phase-one study. "We chose the orexin study because the science was discovered at Sanford-Burnham. It fits our sweet spot — metabolism, obesity and diabetes — and we're excited about the science. We think it has a strong chance of moving forward and becoming a possible treatment."
Like all phase-one studies, this one will look at the safety and efficacy of the lab-based research on humans.
Although Smith doesn't yet know when humans will actually begin testing at the new center because "a ton of work is going on now to get ready for the clinical study and make sure it's safe," of this he is sure: They couldn't have done it without the new facility.
"We needed all the assets the new building offers," Smith said. "It couldn't be done anywhere else in Central Florida."
Among those assets is a metabolic kitchen, which allows researchers "to carefully control the fuel people eat or results get wacky," Smith said. Also crucial is the calorimetry lab, where participants can stay in dormlike rooms for hours to days while researchers measure their energy expenditure and how they metabolize fat and carbohydrates.
Those behind the TRI partnership expect it will hasten the discovery of new treatments for diabetes, obesity and their cardiovascular complications.
According to the National Institutes of Health, diabetes will be one of the most common diseases in the world within two decades, affecting at least half a billion people. In 2010, more than 8 percent of Americans had diabetes.
Leading a national trend
"If you look across the United States, not enough translational research is happening, but we're going to push that forward in Central Florida," said Smith.
The National Institutes of Health is pushing translational research hard. In December, President Obama signed a 2012 spending bill that provided for the NIH to form a National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.
Calling the action a milestone, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said, "Through partnerships that capitalize upon our respective strengths, I believe we can work together to achieve our common goal: speeding the movement of scientific discoveries from the lab to patients."
"We agree," Smith said. "But we're not going to wait for the government to roll this out. We're getting out in front of that in Central Florida and doing this now."