What is translational research?
Translational research aims to translate scientific discoveries from the lab into clinical results that directly benefit patients.
For Dr. Vincent Lam, an Assistant Professor of Oncology at Johns Hopkins University, medicine was a ‘second line’ career choice. Although he had achieved his childhood career goal, in his heart he knew something was missing. His new career as a physician and translational researcher has him providing the link from the lab to the bedside.
While he was a high school sophomore in Seattle, Lam began working at Microsoft. As an undergraduate at University of Washington, Seattle, he had a course of study focused primarily on math and computer science. Upon graduation, he began what was, by all accounts, a great career as a software engineer. In his 20’s he made a name for himself at several start-ups in Silicon Valley. He loved his job – this was during the dot com bubble, after all – and took great pride in his accomplishments in helping develop large-scale internet routers.
“It was a pretty sweet gig. I got to invent things, hang out with a bunch of smart and wonderful people, dictate my own schedule, and the pay wasn’t bad either. Unlike many of my medical colleagues, I didn’t grow up wanting to be a doctor…I wanted to be Bill Gates. But I could not ignore the urge that kept bubbling up: I wanted to give back to society in a more direct way.”
Translational research provides the pathway to giving back for Dr. Vincent Lam
So, in his early 30s, and as the result of three years of research and volunteer clinical work, Lam made the decision to embark on a new career: physician. Before he could even consider applying to medical school, though, he first had to return – as an undergraduate – to complete prerequisite courses such as biology and organic chemistry. He is quick to thank his wife for supporting such a monumental decision. Her willingness to go along for the ride, and face a major shift from a lifestyle of easy living to that of a medical student, played a pivotal role in his success…and he knows it.
Lam left his software career in the rearview mirror and headed to medical school at the University of California San Francisco and then on to University of Maryland for his oncology training. He is grateful that a large part of his training involved taking care of patients in county and VA hospital systems. There, he saw patients who were weathered and beaten down by that which life had handed them. But, noteworthy was that many of these patients seemed resigned to the notion that they were to blame for their lung cancer diagnosis.
“They came in thinking it was their fault. They were absolutely the best patients, willing to do whatever was asked of them and always so grateful for the care they received. They were the true underdogs – unwittingly bearing the burden of the stigma of lung cancer.”
It was this stigma – and his deep desire to eradicate it – that led to Dr. Lam’s decision to focus his studies on lung cancer: both in seeing patients and conducting ongoing research. Through his affiliation with LCFA as well as patient advocacy groups, he works tirelessly to invalidate the devastating narrative that lung cancer patients bear unique responsibility for their own cancer diagnosis.
Translational Lung Cancer Research: Bench to Bedside
Dr. Lam is what is known as a translational researcher. While he sees patients – something that he cherishes – he also spends a significant chunk of time as an academic oncologist, working in collaboration with other researchers and serving as a liaison, of sorts, between lab and bedside. Dr. Lam translates advances from the lab into the clinical context necessary to become new treatments or approaches for patients.
With advances in molecular research over the past decade, it has become patently clear to him that lung cancer is actually many diseases. This understanding plays a role in Dr. Lam’s LCFA Funded research which focuses on ALK+ lung cancer, which predominantly affects younger patients and those without significant smoking exposure. Similar to several other types of lung cancer (e.g. EGFR, ROS1), ALK+ lung cancer is generally not sensitive to current immunotherapies. Dr. Lam aims to comprehensively characterize the immune microenvironment in ALK+ lung cancer, including the use of novel T-cell studies to specifically guide the development of new therapies that can directly enhance the immune system’s anti-tumor response (e.g. vaccines).
For Dr. Vincent Lam his work in translational research is key to giving back to society by finding new therapies for lung cancer patients.