Harnessing the Power of Teams

Team time out: A few members of the Delany AIDS Research Collaborative

By Kate Darby Rauch

Curing AIDS will take diverse experts tackling the problem detail by detail, from relentless genetic analysis, to deep laboratory investigation, to rigorous testing of promising medicines, to ensuring patients worldwide have access to the best treatments for their needs.

On this, most experts agree.

It’s a daunting goal that’s been a focus of UC San Francisco (UCSF) for decades, with pivotal advances in research and patient care from a wealth of faculty.

It’s also a goal that’s receiving a major infusion of strength thanks to a team research design that pulls together multifaceted specialists in a unified project, working as equal partners on a shared goal. The approach, Team Science, is gaining steam at UCSF, with more faculty joining or forming teams to tackle pressing medical problems, and more opportunities for funding, led by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), which has identified the approach as a key area of future focus.

Given the complexity of biology and human disease, it seems much more likely that teams of labs, bringing in complementary strengths and working in collaboration will be able to make a substantive impact on human health.

Mike McCune, MD, PhD

“If you want you to tackle a big goal, like curing AIDS, you need a strategic plan with a cohesive structure that continues for 15 to 20 years. In order for that plan to be successful, you need a multidisciplinary team that’s able to tackle highly complex problems,” said Mike McCune, MD, PhD, a UCSF professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Experimental Medicine.

McCune is a driving force behind the Delany AIDS Research Collaboratory (DARE), a 50-person plus research engine involving an array of specialists from national and international institutions including UCSF.  He’s a major advocate of Team Science, which veers from the traditional academic model of principal investigators working individually in their labs with small teams of researchers typically trained in the same field.

“I think there will always be the role for the individual investigator who oversees his or her own lab,” McCune said. “But given the complexity of biology and human disease, it seems much more likely that teams of labs, bringing in complementary strengths and working in collaboration will be able to make a substantive impact on human health.”

More than 61 researchers across 3 continents comprise the research team known as Epi4K

A Science of Necessity

In 2013, Team Science became an initiative of the CTSI’s Strategic Opportunities Support (SOS) program, one of the institute’s major funding mechanisms, geared to promote innovation in translational research.

Other campus funding groups followed suit, including the Academic Senate and the School of Medicine’s REAC, joining CTSI to create a first-ever Team Science funding category offered through UCSF’s Resource Allocation Program’s (RAP), a one-stop grant center that streamlines the application process for funds from a variety of resources.

When you bring these diverse people together what you find is they actually influence the thoughts, ideas and approaches of each other.

Gretchen Kiser, PhD

Research Development Office (RDO)

The first Team Science awards were granted in 2014, with three projects receiving $50,000 to $75,000 each. The CTSI funded teams working on eye cancer and hemorrhagic strokes. REAC funded McCune’s AIDS work coordinated by McCune and his collaborator, Priscilla Hsue, MD, of UCSF’s Division of Cardiology. 

With two cycles a year, four Team Science awards were issued from RAP’s 2014 fall cycle - SOS funded 1.5 of them. The RFA for the next funding round will be offered in early 2015.

“I feel that UCSF embodies the spirit of Team Science,” said associate professor Janet Myers, PhD, MPH, chair of the committee on research for the Academic Senate, which recently changed its application criteria for its annual faculty lectureship awards specifically to embrace teams.

The hope is to encourage the development of new teams as well as the collaborative thinking that comes with the process, said Dan Lowenstein, MD, director of the Strategic Opportunities Support program and associate director at CTSI.

“It’s a science of necessity,” said Lowenstein, who spearheads a robust Team Science endeavor looking into the genetics of epilepsy, the Epi4K Center Without Walls, and Epilepsy Phoneme/Genome Project, involving 27 clinical centers in the U.S., Canada and Australia.

“We’ve reached a stage in our understanding of biology and diseases that we’re now investigating much more complex problems that really do require expertise from many fields.”

Challenging Academic Traditions

While scientific research is collaborative in its core, the traditional academic model rewards investigators who get primary credit for their research successes, including first or last authorship in published articles. Authorship is historically an important measure used for academic promotion.

This has posed obstacles to Team Science, as key and creative contributors might only garner middle authorship on publications, which is less helpful from the standpoint of academic promotion. This leaves some investigators skeptical of investing their time in team efforts.

In its efforts to promote the approach, the Department of Medicine at UCSF recently faced this problem squarely and adjusted its promotion requirements to include participation in Team Science.

“At UCSF, we’re doing a really great job at thinking about the institutional changes that are necessary to accelerate this type of science,” Lowenstein said. “This includes new promotional criteria which recognizes the contributions of the shared creativity that is at its core.”

Publications generated by Lowenstein’s epilepsy team, for example, are shown as authored by the team, with a list of individual contributions in the appendix.

This change is “very important,” said McCune. “It enables teams to now grow in ways that weren’t possible before. You can imagine someone joining a team, staying engaged for the long-term, and still having a chance to advance through the ranks of promotion.”

Lends Itself to Translation

At UCSF, CTSI is expanding its support for Team Science as one of the primary aims of its next major NIH grant application—the institute’s main source of funding. Team Science is an excellent match for translational research, which focuses on accelerating medical science from labs to bedsides, and to patients in the community, Lowenstein said.

“CTSI is definitely playing an important role in driving Team Science by supporting pilot awards, providing expert advice for team building through the UCSF Center for Health Professions, developing training, and advocating for promotion changes,” he said.

A research team today can contain a broad array of expertise, from bioinformatics to basic science, along with public health and policy experts who take information from patient care back to scientists to guide pragmatic research decision making, said Gretchen Kiser, PhD, director of UCSF’s Research Development Office, which runs the RAP program.

 “When you bring these diverse people together what you find is they actually influence the thoughts, ideas and approaches of each other,” said Kiser, whose office supports Team Science in various ways, including its comprehensive Building Teams for Innovative Research program.

“Now all of a sudden, they’re beyond their normal focus area. You gain something in this. It morphs into something that has the capacity and potential for a bigger leap forward.”

Related Links

UCSF's CTSI is a member of the Clinical and Translational Science Awards network funded through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (grant Number UL1 TR000004) at the National Institutes of Health. Under the banner of "Accelerating Research to Improve Health," CTSI provides a wide range of resources and services for researchers, and promotes online collaboration and networking tools such as UCSF Profiles.