Dr. Salvatore Albani is a champion of translational medicine – the philosophy that research findings shouldn’t be confined to the laboratory, but “translated” into new therapies that treat disease. With both a Ph.D. and M.D., Dr. Albani embodies the bridge between the laboratory and the hospital. As the new director of translational research in Sanford Burnham’s Infectious and Inflammatory Diseases Center, he plans on expanding this discipline at the Institute.
“I first fell in love with Sanford-Burnham because of the emphasis on translational medicine. I joined the faculty at a moment of dramatic transformation, in which immense intellectual resources have made the Institute a worldwide technology leader,” Dr. Albani said. “And these exciting new ideas can be brought to fruition. For the first time, I’m in a place that thinks like I do.”
With this “bench-to-bedside” approach to research, Dr. Albani recently published the results of a Phase II clinical trial he led to test a new drug called dnaJP1, which he and his colleagues at the University of California, San Diego designed to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the body’s own immune system attacks proteins in the joints, causing pain and loss of mobility. Most current therapies work by suppressing the immune system, which treats the symptoms rather than the cause of the disease.
“The current approach to treating rheumatoid arthritis leads to satisfactory control of symptoms in most patients, but it’s costly and comes with significant side-effects,” Dr. Albani explained. “It’s not a cure, it’s a therapy. When you withdraw those treatments, the disease is still there.”
According to Dr. Albani, the key to curing rheumatoid arthritis is getting the immune system to tolerate the proteins that are triggering the deviant response. He and his colleagues gave patients enrolled in the study oral doses of a placebo or dnaJP1, a derivative of the protein that immune cells erroneously attack in rheumatoid arthritis patients. DnaJP1 acts as a decoy to divert the immune system from attacking the proteins that should be left alone. The dnaJP1 peptide was safe and they saw a significant improvement in patients who received the peptide, as compared to those who took the placebo.
“The technology we’ve developed is flexible, so we’re hopeful that it can be applied to other diseases, such as multiple sclerosis,” Dr. Albani said.
Dr. Albani also believes that training scientists in translational medicine is crucial to the goal of bringing more new drugs to market. Just a few years ago, he and two long-time colleagues founded the Eureka Institute, an international school in Italy that promotes the development of analytical skills to enable physicians, scientists and other professionals to translate research discoveries into clinical applications. Last May, two Sanford-Burnham graduate students attended the Eureka Institute’s 2nd Annual International Certificate Program in Translational Medicine.
“I’m very interested in the interface between science and the pharmaceutical industry. I don’t believe in the ‘ivory towers’ of academia,” Dr. Albani said. “We all need to wade in the mud and get dirty in order to make sure what we do is useful.”