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Mighty oaks from little acorns grow

In a little over ten years, the TraIT platform has grown from the seed of an idea, first planted in a CTMM project on colorectal cancer, into a comprehensive ‘office suite’ of IT tools for end-to-end translational medical research. Professor Gerrit Meijer, Head of the Department of Pathology at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, gives his perspective on why TraIT succeeded where other initiatives failed, and how it has become a major contributor to collaborative translational research in the Netherlands and beyond.

12 July, 2017

Gerrit Meijer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview with Gerrit Meijer
Head, Dept. of Pathology, Netherlands Cancer Institute
Professor of Oncologic Pathology, UMC Utrecht

In 2006, when the DeCoDe project consortium submitted its proposal for a colorectal cancer study to CTMM, they included one short paragraph on the need for an IT platform to support data collection and analysis. It was there only because CTMM required something to be said about IT, but in practice it was little more than a general statement that it would be important to have adequate IT tools in place so that the study data could be handled in a good and proper way.

It is truly amazing that little over ten years later, that one paragraph has resulted in the TraIT (Translational research IT) platform – a complete ‘office suite’ of fully supported translational research IT solutions that currently boasts over 3000 users, active in more than 400 studies, and spread over 500 different research sites. And it’s largely thanks to the support of CTMM, the Dutch charitable foundations, and Netherlands academia and industry.

Amazing yes, but probably no surprise, because the problem that TraIT solved exactly matched the problem that CTMM was trying to solve at the time –  bridging the innovation gap to get the fruits of research in molecular medicine adopted into healthcare as quickly as possible for the benefit of patients. The DeCoDe project started in 2008, and the DeCoDe team quickly developed its one paragraph on IT into a detailed operational strategy to get an ’office suite’ for translational research off the ground. During the project scrutiny process, CTMM’s program managers as well as its International Scientific Advisory Committee quickly realized the potential of the IT solutions being explored. As a result, in 2011 they convinced the CTMM board to establish TraIT as a separately funded 5-year CTMM project.

 

Putting users in the driving seat

Keen not to reinvent the wheel, the TraIT team had already looked at what was being used in similar initiatives such as caBIG in the United States, but the truth is there was not too much available that fitted the ’office suite’ purpose. Most IT programs out there tended to be driven from a technology perspective and not from a user perspective. So TraIT turned the argument around, putting users rather than technology in the driving seat. Its work package leaders were deliberately chosen from people who would eventually be TraIT users. A conscious decision was also made to ‘think big, start small, act now’, and base the development and implementation strategy on use cases. As it turns out, these were the keys to success, because it has ensured that the TraIT ’office suite‘ is highly process oriented – focused on helping translational researchers do the things they have to do every day. TraIT has been so successful that keeping it alive by transferring responsibility for it to Lygature – the new organisation that came out of the merger of CTMM and TI Pharma – was a given.

Today, TraIT supports the full process chain, from the beginning of the first stage in the translational research process to the final stage where you produce deliverables. There is a central support desk in place, and there are even external companies that can help you configure the tools for special applications. Today, TraIT is used in large multi-center studies, where it is making a major contribution to getting translational research data up to the professional quality that has for a long time existed in drug research but not in biomarker research.

It has also made its mark in national and international life-science infrastructure initiatives. As early as 2012, TraIT teamed up with BBMRI-NL and the European Population Imaging Infrastructure

(EPI2) to create the second-generation BBMRI-NL organization, where TraIT tools are now important components of BBMRI-NL’s IT workpackage. It has also teamed up with IMI in the IMI/EU funded eTRIKS project, largely focussed on the interoperability of TraIT tools with the open-source tranSMART analysis and data-sharing platform. In addition, TraIT is represented on the board of directors of the tranSMART foundation.

 

Fostering collaboration to benefit patients

With a complete office suite for translational research now in place, the aggregation and interpretation of data from many different sources – so called Big Data – is a much more practical proposition.  Nevertheless, a great deal of translational research data remains fragmented and difficult to access – not because the right tools are not in place, but because of social and cultural factors. Today’s fragmentation has much more to do with human behaviour – in this case, of researchers – and that is largely directed by reward.

The fact remains that most academics are still rewarded with grants based on the number and ranking of the publications they can get their names on as a lead author. So if having a valuable resource such as a large biobank of samples or a large database of clinical information is what enables you to write more papers, why would you share your best assets with your competitors.  And that, of course, is counter-productive to what’s needed in translational research – larger data sets and greater collaboration to put together the strong evidence needed to accelerate medical innovations and get them faster to patients.

One of the objectives of Health-RI, the recently formed initiative by BBMRI-NL, EATRIS-NL, and DTL/ELIXIR-NL, is to break down those barriers. Its goal is to bundle and connect a wide range of resources, including biobanks, IT technologies, facilities and data collections, into a single large-scale collective research infrastructure for Personalized Medicine & Health Research in the Netherlands. TraIT is already an enthusiastic and active partner in that endeavour.

The other good news is that some of the Netherlands funding organisations, notably some of the medical charities that were previously not prepared to fund research infrastructures, are realizing the potential return-on-investment of putting money into infrastructure initiatives like Health-RI.  Last year, the Dutch Cancer Society did precisely that by awarding a EUR 2.25 million grant for the TraIT-to-Health-RI project – clear evidence of the importance they place on having IT platforms in place that can aggregate and mine Big Data to help the patients they serve.

So if you want evidence that ‘mighty oaks from little acorns grow’, you only have to look to TraIT as an example.

 

 

 

Report on CTMM-TraIT 2011-2016

All the important information about the TraIT project in the years 2011-2016 has been captured in a report, which can be found here.