Monday, November 10, 2014

To dream the impossible dream (Musings on TM research)

As always, stay tuned for updates

November's blog is based on an abstract from AABB's 2014 meeting in Transfusion. I always read 'Education and Training' abstracts (one of the smaller sections - go figure!), and this one caught my eye:
  • A14-030D: ChargĂ© SB, Walsh GM. Bridging the gap: knowledge mobilization and transfusion medicine research. Transfusion 2014 Sept;54(2S):231A. 
The authors are from CBS's Centre for Innovation. 'Leading edge' on the Centre's website grates but at least it isn't 'bleeding edge.' As soon as I read 'knowledge mobilization' in the abstract I thought, 
  • 'OMG, not more management bafflegab by Canada's national blood supplier!' 
  • If there's a new buzzword out there like knowledge mobilization, you can bet CBS management will jump on it. 
That said, reading the abstract, I lost my skepticism, well at least some of it. The project to educate front-line CBS staff about the organization's research initiatives and research team is admirable.

The blog's title derives from the principal song of the musical 'Man of la Mancha' based on Cervantes' 17th C classic, Don Quixote. I hope that transfusion professionals the world over can relate to the blog's musings on the nature of research.
Here's my version of the CBS research initiative. (Read full abstract for more details) 

Title: Bridging the gap: knowledge mobilization and transfusion medicine research
Why do it?  To transfer knowledge generated by basic and clinical research to those whose work it may affect. Unfortunately, journal publications and conference presentations have limited access.
What did they do? CBC developed these tools:
  • Summaries in plain language of notable publications were published online monthly and aimed at all stakeholders, including donors.
  • Knowledge to Munch OnInternal follow-up to major conferences, inc. 
    • Displays of conference posters
    • Distributing an electronic conference report
    • Lunch and Learn national webinars highlighting conference presentations. 
What did they find? Summaries in plain language: Between March 2013 and March 2014, 10 Research Units were online and downloaded >1100 times.

Knowledge to Munch On:
  • 66 conference presentations were available to staff who couldn't attend conferences
  • 3 electronic conference reports were downloaded 747 times in the 3 months after publication
  • Lunch and Learn: 8 presentations were attended by 263 staff.
    •  96% agreed with, 'This event enhanced my knowledge.' 
    •  76%felt that the knowledge was applicable to their practice.
What did they conclude? The programs' impacts are measurable and need more developing and monitoring to achieve a greater impact.

My take on the CBS research project
  1. Demographics: Who viewed the posters, downloaded the summaries and reports, attended and participated (geographical locale and health profession)?
  2. When were various components of the program available and accessed? During the work day vs lunch hours, coffee breaks, and after hours at home?
  3. Plain language summaries of 10 research units downloaded a total of  >1100 times over a year is NOT very much. 
  4. Was a Likert 5-point scale used to assess participant feedback? e.g., 96% agreed with, 'This event enhanced my knowledge' and '76% felt that the knowledge was applicable to their practice.'
Seems like a good start. Wonder how much time, effort, funds were spent and how committed CBS is to maintain the project, given the organization's overpowering emphasis on cost cutbacks, even related to its core business lines.

1. Research means being incurably curious about the world. Researchers, especially those involved in basic research, conduct many experiments year after year with failure after failure and little hope of success, until it happens, if it does. 

2. How many researcher dudes have you even heard of (and they are mainly dudes)? You may recognize the names of the luminaries who publish in leading journals and present often at conferences. 

But if you are a front-line transfusion professional, whether lab technologist /biomedical scientist, nurse or physician, you likely do not read papers or attend sessions on basic research, whose titles are often indecipherable. Even applied research gets little readership unless it directly affects us.

3. Many types of research existSee this primer on medical researchOn a simplistic level
  • Basic research is wondering if inherited traits might make different groups of people more or less susceptible to the same disease.
  • Applied research is trying to develop a screening test for HIV once we know it causes AIDS, and possibly making mega-bucks in the process.
4. It's easy for people to slag researchers as egg heads divorced from reality. These guys and gals get to attend conferences and seemingly live a charmed, stress-free life compared to those in the trenches. 

Indeed, I live in a university city where some politicians have long dissed academics as not living in the 'real world'. Anti-intellectualism is popular among populist politicians and a sure vote winner with some.

5. What the public does not see is the stress of researchers: 
  • Proving their worth annually by winning scarce research funds
  • Keeping spirits up in the face of experiments extending for years 
  • Defending criticism from peers when they publish findings
  • Facing condescension by some who perceive them as pampered 'ivory tower' dwellers.
6. Basic research, often derided, has a record of producing major scientific findings. One example:
Hepatitis BApplied research is all the rage among politicians these days, but basic research rivals it via serendipity. 
Hepatitis B kills more than 700,000 people annually. Prevalence is highest in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia, where most people become infected during childhood and 5-10% of adults are chronically infected. Vertical transmission from mother to child is common. About half of all cases of hepatocellular carcinoma are attributed to chronic HBV infection.  
Today all blood donations are screened for HBV thanks to its discovery by Dr. Baruch S. Blumberg 
In 1976, Dr. Blumberg won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for his discovery of the hepatitis B virus. He and his colleagues discovered the virus in 1967. 
But Blumberg began as a medical anthropologist interested in the genetics of disease susceptibility. He wondered if inherited traits might make different groups of people more or less susceptible to the same disease. The research had nil to do with hepatitis.
His research involved using antibodies from multi-transfused hemophiliac patients to test blood samples collected around the world. When an antibody from a New York hemophiliac reacted with an antigen in the blood of an Australian aborigine, they called it the 'Australia antigen', and the serendipitous path to a life-saving discovery was made. 
The Au antigen was subsequently found in the serum of many multi-transfused leukemia patients. Was it related to causing leukemia? Then Blumberg's laboratory technologist developed hepatitis B. And ultimately it became clear that the Australian antigen was the hepatitis B surface antigen
Soon a lab test was developed to screen blood donors and a vaccine was developed.
  • Basic research, with unknown outcomes, often trumps applied research, despite applied research being the flavour of the decade. 
  • A researcher's life is not all roses. Far from it. 
  • All health professions should get to know each other better, including the researchers who work behind the scenes and whose work can affect us all.
The blog's title derives from the musical, Man of La Mancha, based on Cervantes' Don Quixote, and its song, 'To dream the impossible dream'

Like Don Quixote, researchers are sometimes seen as impractical, naive, idealist dreamers. Researchers dream the dream daily. It keeps them going. They never know when something momentous will be discovered, something to improve the lives of people, like Blumberg's Australian antigen did.
As always, comments are most welcome.
  • Baruch S. Blumberg