Perdana University Graduate School of Medicine: Facilitating translational biomedical research in Malaysia

by Dr Patti Gravitt

Perdana University, a medical university established in collaboration with the John Hopkins University School of Medicine was recently launched in Malaysia. Dr Patti Gravitt, an Associate Professor at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Vice Dean of Research of Perdana University Graduate School Of Medicine, gives us an overview of the university’s research missions.  Dr Gravitt also highlights the importance of translational medicine and how the School of Medicine at Perdana University aims to bring the advances in research from bench to bedside.

Biomedical research is at a crossroads.  The turn of the 21st century has heralded unprecedented technological advancements.  The ‘omics’ revolution allows description of the molecular landscape of individuals with astonishing depth and breadth.  We can now mine this landscape for molecular signatures of diseases, extending from basic the most basic genetic level to the vast complexity of the individual and their environment.  The ‘omics’ revolution (genomics, epigenomics, proteomics, metabolomics) is redefining our understanding of the homeostasis between health and disease, risk, and therapeutics. While these exciting advances have resulted in exponential growth in biomedical knowledge and academic biomedical journal publications, proportional translation of these discoveries to improvements in human health is conspicuously absent

The barriers to effective translation of 21st century discovery have been debated in the biomedical literature.  While there is no single cause for failure to translate, a consensus is forming in the biomedical research community that traditional disciplinary approaches are insufficient to meet the demands of understanding the complex diseases that are the primary causes of global mortality.  The research mission of Perdana University Graduate School of Medicine (PUGSOM) was developed to capitalize on a unique opportunity to redefine academic research to remove the disciplinary divide that contributes to the lag in the translation of the major academic discoveries of the last decade.

A successful strategy for building highly successful research programs in the past has been centered on recruitment of ‘the best and the brightest’ in a particular discipline.  With an understanding that translation of the ‘omics’ discoveries will require significant cross-disciplinary collaboration, PUGSOM research development is based on a problem-centered philosophy.  To begin, PUGSOM intend to target a limited number of major global health challenges that are of particular relevance to Malaysia, including emerging infections such as dengue and chickungunya and non-communicable diseases such as major metabolic diseases (e.g. type 2 diabetes) and cancer.  Development of successful research programs in these areas requires significant interdisciplinary team building through targeted faculty recruitment and development of collaborative networks of local and international investigators.  The partnership of PUGSOM with Johns Hopkins University brings a wealth of intellectual and technological resource to the Malaysia-centered initiatives.

Three critical components of these initiatives are aimed toward achieving a rapid advancement in translation of scientific discovery at all levels.  First, PUGSOM will create both a physical and an intellectual environment that facilitates interdisciplinary communication, from the conception of a research problem to the translation to clinical or public health application.  Bringing scientists from diverse disciplines together in the early stages of project development will ensure that the complexity of the translational problem is appropriately addressed.  In this way, potential barriers to translation can be anticipated and strategies developed to maximize a seamless translation from one phase to the next.  As an example, in the development of novel technologies for cervical cancer screening, there has been a historic disconnect between development of molecular tests with high analytic promise and the infrastructural requirements for collection of compatible samples.  Aligning laboratory chemists with field investigators and practitioners ensures that technological innovation and advancement is placed in the context of real world clinical and public health resources.

Second, the high density of molecular data generated from the discovery ‘omics’ platforms, coupled with murky phenotypically heterogeneous disease states requires increasingly complex analytic methods of data reduction.   The need for computational expertise in bioinformatics and systems biology is acute.  PUGSOM intends to develop a strong Computational Biology Core (CBC), which will serve as an anchor for the interdisciplinary collaborative teams.  Because of the global dearth of computational biology expertise relative to the generation of high-density data, development of the CBC at PUGSOM has the potential to catapult Malaysia into academic prominence on an international level.  Training programs developed from the CBC are envisioned to make Malaysia one of the world resources for computational biology and bioinformatics.

Finally, effective translation of scientific biomedical discovery is realized when a measurable impact of a preventative or therapeutic intervention is realized.  Clinical practice and public health policy are key factors that influence the realization of this goal.  To that end, PUGSOM intends to create a Center for Translational Research (CTR), with a goal to develop a strong clinical trials and health services research infrastructure.  A key function of the CTR will be the development of state-of-the-art disease surveillance systems to readily describe the distribution and burden of disease in Malaysia will facilitate the implementation of Phase 2 & 3 clinical trials, attracting collaboration from the pharmaceutical industry, and facilitating program evaluation for future policy decisions that ensure the most cost-effective utilization of health resources.
The leadership at PUGSOM, including the visionary partnerships between the Malaysian Government, Academic Medical Centre Sdn.Bhd. (AMC), and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, has identified a unique opportunity to transform not only graduate medical education, but also the structure of academic research.  To this end, PUGSOM does not seek to transplant an American version of research medicine to Malaysia, but to embody the transformational history of Malaysia by taking the opportunity to reassess the biomedical landscape of the 21st century and realign the academic research goals with these new realities.  In collaboration with the excellent research and academic institutions in Malaysia and abroad, PUGSOM aims to serve as a global model for translational research.

About the author

Patti Gravitt, Ph.D., M.S. is the Vice Dean for Research of the Perdana University Graduate School of Medicine (PUGSOM).  Dr. Gravitt is an associate professor with the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is current chair of the Interdepartmental Program in Molecular Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Gravitt received her M.S. in biology from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and her Ph.D. in Epidemiology from the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her goal at PUGSOM is to utilize her expertise in multidisciplinary research to develop research programs targeted to health problems important to Malaysia and SE Asia.

Dr. Gravitt’s research interest is in the natural history of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection and cervical cancer and spans the public health spectrum from prevention to etiology.  Her current projects include (1) Cervical cancer screening in India by community-based self-sampling and HPV testing, (2) HPV natural history in the menopausal transition, (3) the role of exogenous hormone use on HPV acquisition and clearance, (4) the natural history of HPV in the early HIV seroconversion period, (5) the role of female sex hormones on immunologic response to HPV, and (6) the interaction between helminth infection and lower genital tract immunity and HPV persistence.  Prior to pursuing her doctoral degree, Dr. Gravitt developed the current gold standard PCR methods for HPV DNA detection and genotyping at Roche Molecular Systems, Inc.