PSS Winter '12


Robert Distel ’76 on Translational Research

by Melissa Sue Sorrells Galley ’05

Robert Distel

Robert Distel ’76

I started my career as a research technician at Harvard, and I always wondered how our work in the lab made its way into clinical trials and, eventually, into the hands of patients. Over the years I saw it not happen more than I saw it happen, and I began to talk with friends and colleagues about how we could harness some of these really interesting discoveries and move them forward.

In the world of science, the process of moving an idea from the bench to the bedside is called ‘translation,’ and it’s extremely complicated. There are many groups involved at every step of the way, from researchers to pharmaceutical executives, and every group has its own culture, language and way of working. In too many cases, these differences get in the way of meaningful outcomes for patients.

One of the most fundamental disconnects in science is between basic researchers and clinical researchers. Basic researchers design and complete controlled experiments in a laboratory, and they get very precise results. Clinicians, on the other hand, perform their tests in live patients, so they can’t control all of the variables.

In order to improve upon existing cancer therapies and develop new ones, basic researchers need incredibly precise measurements of how cancer therapies work in humans. Currently, the clinicians are unable to provide those measurements without compromising patient care. They are working together, but they speak different languages, and there are very few translators out there.

That’s where my lab comes in. In 2002, Dr. Lee Nadler, the Senior Vice President of Experimental Medicine at Dana-Farber and the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, invited me to work with him to create a new Translational Research Laboratory. We have the lab space and expertise to bridge the gaps between different cultures in the scientific community, leading to more multidisciplinary collaboration.

Currently, we’re exploring the diagnostic potential of circulating tumor cells, which break off from the main tissue mass and move through the blood stream. Do these cells have the same makeup as the rest of the tumor? Can we use them to study the tumor as a whole? And, if we can, how will we harvest them? Even if the circulating tumor cells are a perfect diagnostic tool, they’re useless unless we can develop a simple and efficient technique to collect them.

There are very few of these cells in a single sample of blood, so we’re working on a new device that will filter the circulating tumor cells out of a sample. If we can do that, we may gain a massive amount of data about what’s happening inside of a patient’s body just by taking a tube of blood. We’re hopeful that these technologies will eliminate a significant barrier between basic and clinical researchers working to cure cancer.

I feel incredibly lucky to work with remarkable, basic biomedical researchers as well as clinicians and physician-scientists who are all working together to find more effective approaches. My work is incredibly exciting. I have the flexibility to bring technologies together, collaborate with researchers, and bring therapies to patients. We’re advancing science and everyone benefits.

• Research Director, Translational Research Laboratory at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
• Associate Director, Harvard Catalyst Laboratory for Innovative Translational Technology at Harvard Medical School
• Ph.D., Biology, Tufts University
• B.S. Biology, Hobart College


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.