Thursday, June 20, 2013

Three years in: what has the $42M Atopic Dermatitis Research Network produced?

In July it will be three years since the NIH awarded National Jewish Health in Denver, CO $31 million to create and administer the Atopic Dermatitis Research Network, a consortium of five academic sites across the US. A contractor, Rho Federal Systems of Chapel Hill, NC, won an $11 million contract to operate a center to coordinate statistics and clinical trials for the project.

That makes $42 million—spread over five years—which puts the project on the large end of NIH funding for individual biomedical efforts. The typical NIH research grant ranges from $100 thousand to $2 million, and anything bigger is fodder for university news releases. Which raises the question: what have US taxpayers gotten in return?

I ask this as a patient who is grateful that these scientists are working to understand a disease that affects me, my family, and millions in the US and worldwide.

The answer is not obvious, since the publications page on the ADRN website hasn’t been updated since July 2011.

According to the website:
The Atopic Dermatitis Research Network (ADRN) is a consortium of academic medical centers that will conduct clinical research studies in an attempt to learn more about skin infections associated with atopic dermatitis (AD). The studies will focus on antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infections and widespread viral infections of the skin, both of which are more prevalent among AD patients. The ADRN will build on the work of the Atopic Dermatitis and Vaccinia Network (ADVN) which conducted clinical studies focused on making smallpox vaccinations safer for people with AD. 
This research will lead to a greater understanding of the immune system in AD patients and may lead to novel therapeutic strategies to manage or prevent infectious complications associated with this disease. 
The ADRN will conduct a number of clinical studies over the next five years and will be enrolling large numbers of people with AD.
A search on clinicaltrials.gov returns two entries for the ADRN: one (open) to create a database of patients for the study of genetic markers connected to susceptibility to infections, and one (completed) to look into how AD patients respond to a new flu vaccine.

The ADRN’s NIH contract number is HHSN272201000020C. A search in the NIH’s PubMed database returns 12 papers that acknowledge funding by that contract number. Three of those are review papers (which did not involve new research).

So that makes  two clinical trials and nine research papers, three years into a five-year $42 million project.

Should US taxpayers expect more; be satisfied; or be impressed?

The answer is probably that we will have to wait to find out.

In each year, a typical top university research lab operates on about $2-3M a year and publishes somewhere around ten papers. That’s roughly $200k a paper.

Three of the five years in the ADRN contract are up; three-fifths of $42M is around $24M. We might therefore naively estimate that we should have seen upwards of 100 papers produced so far.

Most likely the reasons there are only 12 at the moment are that you don't start publishing papers right at the outset of a project. The research must be done first and then written up; and the process of getting accepted to a journal takes months. And the ADRN appears largely to rely on clinical trials--which take time to set up.

So why do we only see two trials listed on clinicaltrials.gov?

I've never had anything to do with a clinical trial, but when I was a researcher, I conducted animal experiments, and there were formidable administrative hurdles to get over before I could start work. I imagine that trials with human subjects are heavily regulated by the government, and for good reason. So the apparently small output of the ADRN to date is, I'm guessing, because it takes a long time to plan trials, get approval, and conduct them, before you can begin analyzing data and reporting it.
Still, let's keep in mind that the ADRN is an extension of the ADVN. It’s not like the ADRN began from scratch—the scientists had the momentum of existing expertise and administration and research aims.

Looking at the titles of the published papers, I can't immediately judge which are the most important. So I emailed Donald Leung, the principal investigator for the ADRN (he's a professor and head of the Division of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at National Jewish Health), and asked him whether he could summarize the consortium’s findings so far and highlight key points. I hope to hear back from him soon and perhaps to interview him on the phone.

I’d like to know what ADRN scientists have found that surprises them. What have they learned that is truly new?

And what is going to be truly useful to patients in the end? Publishing papers should not be the be-all and end-all of scientific research. What about patents? I’d like to know whether anyone in the ADRN has thought about controlling intellectual property and commercialization. While it’s true that clinical studies may highlight the ideal dosing amount or schedule for existing therapies, and this does not involve creating a new commercial enterprise, most medical technology must pass through the marketplace before it can benefit the consumer/patient.

Someone has to do the dirty work of developing scientific discovery into therapy, and it’s not academic scientists.

More to come.

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