‘Translational medicine’ (or ‘from bench to bedside’) is one of recent popular notions in  biomedical research policy discourse. The idea is to strenghten the relations between basic life science research and clinical work: “Translational medicine facilitates the rapid, effective application of results in the research laboratory to patients in the clinic”, says one of Science magazine’s website editors.

At first sight the notion of ‘translational medicine’ looks like old wine in new barrels. For example, strengthening the bonds between basic science and the clinic was the foundational idea behind the creation of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the early 1890s, making Baltimore the world’s leading medical research city around the turn of the last century. And the history of 20th century medicine is replete with examples of the close connections between basic life science research and clinical work. Clinical practice is to a large extent based on scientific knowledge — a lot of translation has flown under the bridges in the last hundred years.

So what’s the recent buzz about ‘translational medicine’ about? It probably has to do with the fact that basic life science research over the last decades has produced an enormous amount of knowledge about molecular and cellular structures and processes which has not yet been translated into clinical practice. In private, clinical people are often somewhat embarassed about the fact that so little of basic molecular biology and genomic and postgenomic science has been turned into useful bedside practice. So ‘translational medicine’ is probably just another way of saying that molecular biology (and its present version: postgenomics) — which as been funded for more than half a century because of its alleged clinical usefulness (e.g., to find “the cure against cancer”) — has to start to deliver.

Is there any historian of idea out there who is interested in taking a closer look at the history of the notion of ‘translational medicine’?

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