A recent partnership with Rutgers University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) is promoting collaborations between University researchers and the medical community. The partnership, known as the New Jersey Alliance for Clinical and Translational Science (NJ ACTS), provides resources to advance the quality and quantity of translational research impacting health in New Jersey.
Beginning in 2019, the initiative was funded by a $29 million grant from the National Institutes of Health as part of its Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) program. Building a bridge between basic research at the University and the medical schools and hospitals at nearby institutions, NJ ACTS provides grants, training, and mentoring, among other services, for scientists interested in research that will improve public health.
This collaboration offers opportunities for University faculty to interact with clinical partners to better understand what research gaps can be filled.
“Translational science is about building on basic research to create diagnostics, procedures, or new therapies,” said Pablo Debenedetti, Dean for Research and chemical and biological engineering professor, who serves on the NJ ACTS Board of Directors. Debenedetti added that gaining access to relevant medical data and connecting with real-life patients “allows Princeton faculty to have strong connections to clinical research.”
Sam Wang, Professor of Neuroscience and director of the NJ ACTS pilot grants program at the University, said that the program was created specifically to “develop ideas that have the potential to turn into treatments.”
“Princeton is on the cutting-edge of biological research. But what we don’t have is a medical school,” Wang said. “The value is to open a channel with people who do direct clinical work at Rutgers and NJIT.”
The program began when Rutgers contacted the University and NJIT to apply for a joint CTSA grant. Daniel Notterman, a senior research scholar in molecular biology, was one of the University faculty members interested in participating. In addition to being a physician-scientist — both performing research and seeing patients — Notterman formerly taught at Rutgers’ medical school and saw the value of the partnership for all parties.
The goal of the collaboration, Notterman said, was to “move basic science from the laboratory bench to the patient’s bedside and to train the next generation of physician-scientists.”
Academic institutions and medical centers have been trying to build their own such partnerships for decades, but often lacked the infrastructure and resources needed for smooth communication. The CTSA grants, which last for 5 years and can be renewed, are a way to provide that necessary support, according to Notterman.
NJ ACTS has allowed faculty to submit applications for seed money to start collaborative projects — often projects that would not be undertaken otherwise. For example, some University researchers involved in a project on the biological correlates of transgender youth are working with doctors at Rutgers who see young adult patients undergoing gender transition.
The partnership also enables the institutions to gain access to shared facilities. Although the University has some of the best resources, Notterman said, “there are things that we don’t have that pertain to patient-based research” such as lung tissue samples or biopsies.
The initiative’s projects are not just based in the hard sciences, but in the social sciences as well.
“There are ways in which our faculty can contribute to understanding health in its broadest sense,” Notterman said, “biomedical, but also social determinants of health, epidemiology, and public policy.”
Kathryn Edin, Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, is one such researcher studying the connection between health and housing policy in Trenton.
NJ ACTS also provides pilot grants for young faculty and training fellowships for graduate students and postgraduate researchers.
The opportunity to collaborate with medical professionals at Rutgers has been transformative for Tom Zajdel, a postdoctoral researcher in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department and a NJ ACTS fellow.
Zajdel works on using electrical fields and currents to stimulate cell migration, a phenomenon known as electrotaxis. In the lab, he manipulates mouse skin cells in a petri dish, but he hopes that the applications of his work can go much further — to the healing of wounds in body tissues. Breaks in tissue lead to the formation of a small electric current, thought to be a signal to nearby cells to migrate to fill the gap. Zajdel wants to take advantage of this natural phenomenon to get wounds to heal faster.
As an engineer, Zajdel had little experience with the medical side prior to getting involved with NJ ACTS.
“I want to make stimulation devices to help wound healing,” Zajdel said. “But I’ve never seen a wound dressing before.”
His fellowship with NJ ACTS has allowed him to reach out to clinicians at Rutgers who work with elderly patients with chronic wounds that don’t heal, or diabetic patients with ulcers. Although he is still in the process of finding partners, the collaboration has made it easier for him to establish contacts, and to refine his lab-based experiments in ways that make his work more relevant for doctors and patients.
“Your research is more impactful if it’s translational,” Zajdel said. “I’m starting to think about what I want my impact to be. It’s better if your research doesn’t just exist in a vacuum but has an eye towards potential applications that can help people.”
Fellows from all three institutions meet monthly. Zajdel has found it helpful to talk with other graduate students who are more involved in the medical community — like Chloe Cavanaugh GS, a student in the Princeton-Rutgers MD/PhD program who is now in her first year of graduate research. She was awarded a fellowship for her research on the human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) and its method of infection. Cavanaugh is searching for unique methods of treatment for HCMV by looking at how the virus upregulates telomerase, a protein commonly found at high levels in cancers.
Cavanaugh emphasized the importance of NJ ACTS in spreading the word about seminars and workshops that bring physicians and scientists together in conversation.
“There are some on team science, some on statistical analysis, biostatics, epidemiology,” Cavanaugh said.
But NJ ACTS is not just for faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers — it has benefits for undergraduates too. NJ ACTS can provide opportunities ranging from shadowing doctors at hospitals to information about applying to the Princeton-Rutgers MD/PhD program. Such opportunities might otherwise be limited for University students, who do not have access to a medical school.
“One of the benefits is to create relationships that will help our undergraduates see what biomedical research is like,” Notterman said.
“It’s not just for the premeds,” Notterman emphasized. “It’s for all students interested in health, wellness, and biomedical research.”
Besides resources like seed money, NJ ACTS can provide something less concrete, but arguably, just as important — a space to convene and interact with like-minded scientists.
Although collaborations between Rutgers, NJIT, and the University have certainly existed in the past, the formal establishment of NJ ACTS has made it easier to receive monetary support, contact potential partners, and navigate the bureaucracies associated with large research and medical institutions.
That job falls largely to Bianca Freda ’98, the NJ ACTS coordinator, and her staff.
Notterman explained that if you are a student and want to collaborate with someone at Rutgers, for instance, you don’t just want to pick up the phone book.
“You want to know who to speak with, what the best department is, who’s working on these projects,” Notterman said. “One of the goals is to provide a fluid, detailed way to connect with the right person.”
Freda points out that it’s not just about lab-based research. Together with the University’s Center for Health and Wellbeing, NJ ACTS offers partnership and innovation grants specifically for community engagement.
“That is a version of translational science, as well,” Freda said. “To take things out of the lab and the computer and get academia to partner with nonprofits and community-based health clinics.”
Although NJ ACTS grants and training programs are primarily for graduate students, Notterman said that he “wouldn’t want the undergraduates to think that this is not a great way for them to form connections,” learn from diverse people straddling the medical and scientific fields, and participate in breakthrough projects.
The collaborations enabled by NJ ACTS are exactly the kind that would benefit research on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Such partnerships, which connect academics with doctors and patients, could enable life-saving discoveries, “improving the health of people in New Jersey and beyond,” Notterman said.
Although there have been no formal cross-institutional initiatives as of yet, scientists at Rutgers are running clinical trials under the NJ ACTS umbrella and have recently developed a new rapid coronavirus test. In addition, proposals for NJ ACTS Pilot Grants, due next month, may also yield new avenues for exploration.
COVID-related or not, Notterman said, “the benefits will flow to our whole community.”