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Shirley Ryan AbilityLab launches to move scientific research from bench to bedside

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) has moved into a new research hospital facility and renamed itself the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. The former RIC now occupies a $550 million, 1.2 million square foot facility located on prime real estate in downtown Chicago. The AbilityLab aims to create a setting in which research scientists, engineers and other specialists can work side-by-side with clinicians and patients to improve treatment. This approach is a departure from traditional methods of organizing clinical practice and research, and will serve as an experimental model for medical institutions to observe.

The AbilityLab’s approach is based on the concept of translational medicine, which generally refers to the transfer of scientific research to clinical practice—“bench to bedside”—as well as to taking lessons learned in the clinic back to the lab to advance further research. The NIH has promoted this idea, and many institutions have set up various translational programs that aim to connect their research and clinical operations. However, the AbilityLab believes that it is unique in integrating research scientists directly into the patient milieu to develop new solutions and better therapies.

Dr. Joanne Smith, M.D., president and CEO of the AbilityLab, is the driving force behind the institute, which has been in the making for years. “With the design of our new hospital, we’re literally taking down walls to harness this moment and facilitate guided ‘collisions.’  With direct, ongoing exposure to a clinical environment, scientists will conduct research with greater intention, based on the needs of patients that they themselves observe,” said Smith. “This model of translational research will change the way people work and the way patients get better, increasing the likelihood that promising research ideas will be converted into viable medical treatments.”

The AbilityLab’s structure is different from that of a traditional rehabilitation hospital, which is based on service centers for specific diagnoses such as stroke, spinal cord injury or traumatic brain injury. The institute has instead formed Innovation Centers, which are essentially in-patient units that focus on specific organs such as the brain, spinal cord or nerve/muscle/bone impairments, as well as pediatric and cancer centers. Therapeutic treatment is provided in function-specific AbilityLabs, which include Arms and Hands; Legs and Walking; Think and Speak; and Strength and Endurance. Patients with different diagnoses thus receive treatment in centers focused on regaining specific functions.

“It’s a very patient-centered design,” said Dr. Richard Lieber, Ph.D., chief scientific officer and senior vice president of the AbilityLab. “The in-patient areas have people with the same kind of physiological system impairments. For example, our brain Innovation Center includes stroke, traumatic brain injury and neurodegenerative disease patients. When they get their treatment, whether they are stroke or spinal cord injury patients, they will all be working on a specific function, such as walking, in an AbilityLab.”

This structure is designed to promote interdisciplinary collaboration in the AbilityLabs to solve patient-specific problems. “We place scientists and their expert teams into each AbilityLab,” explained Lieber. “For example, in our Arms and Hands Lab, we might have an expert in motor unit function, a specialist in hand robotics, another in motor control of the hand and an expert in biomechanics and modeling of the hand.” By giving cross-functional teams of experts direct access to patients with real-world problems, the institute hopes to improve the development of new therapeutic concepts and technologies. Each AbilityLab has a scientific chair tasked with helping these teams work together, and each Innovation Center has a clinical chair responsible for reaching out to the scientific chairs to ensure things run smoothly.

An advantage of bringing scientists into the therapeutic mix is that it can enhance their understanding of medical needs and practices, and thus lead to better solutions. “Doctors and patients are really good at understanding what the patient’s problems are,” explained Lieber. “Scientists, in general, don’t really know the problems, but they think up cool stuff to do. But when they work in this facility, they will be presented with these problems.”  The co-mingling of research scientists, engineers, technologists and doctors may also create difficulties. Practitioners of these disparate fields think and speak differently about medical and technological problems. “It’s like learning a foreign language,” said Lieber. “It is a complete cultural cross-fertilization, and that’s really hard.”

In addition to charitable donations, such as the naming gift provided by Shirley and Patrick Ryan, the AbilityLab’s hospital operations provide funding for the institute. Research scientists also seek traditional grants from the NIH, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, and can receive internal funding for specific projects that fall outside grant projects. Further, the institute is developing an intellectual property portfolio, and sees licensing agreements and partnerships as providing a future revenue stream.

The AbilityLab is still in its early stages. Scientists and patients moved into the facility in March, and the institute is hiring personnel and setting up its equipment, technology and systems. The AbilityLab is also gearing up to start a new clinical trial in July for stroke. Whether or not the institute’s vision for embedding scientists with doctors and patients will succeed remains to be seen. The effort is high risk and involves simultaneous changes in branding, structure and leadership. Still, Lieber believes the measure of success is straightforward. “The goal is really simple,” said Lieber. “Our goal is to make patients better.”  


This article was reprinted from Volume 21, Issue 15, of CWWeekly, a leading clinical research industry newsletter providing expanded analysis on breaking news, study leads, trial results and more. Subscribe »

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