University News

New center to codify medical research

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, March 5, 2012

The first article you read calls drinking coffee a death sentence. Then you flip the page and find a column touting coffee’s benefits. What’s a coffee drinker to do?

Fortunately for scientists and consumers alike, the University’s new Center for Evidence-Based Medicine aims to solve just this sort of data synthesis crisis. A team of top-tier research synthesizers currently working at the Tufts University Medical Center will transfer to Brown throughout the year to develop the center. 

The center will develop new strategies for meta-analysis­ — a “rather simple” premise, according to Joseph Lau, co-director of the center and professor of health services, policy and practice. “We put together all this information that comes from independent experiments and learn something more about the questions we are trying to address.”

Independent experiments may target the same question but generate different conclusions, due to differences in sample selection, research methods and setting, Lau said. With such a vast array of independent results, making sense of research and forming broad conclusions can be difficult — which is where Lau and his colleagues come in. 

Using statistical software, the team synthesizes the results of multiple independent experiments. Their process grants them increased statistical power, guaranteeing a more accurate and focused conclusion, he said.

“It’s as if you have many more lab rats,” said Christopher Schmid, professor of biostatistics.

Though meta-analysis centers exist across the globe, the Brown center will be unique, Schmid said.

“Most centers that do evidence-based medicine are basically applying techniques to answer questions in medicine, whereas we are not only doing that but we’re developing new approaches and new tools for doing the process,” Schmid said.

Their search for innovative new strategies of meta-analysis puts the Tufts team at the “top of their field,” said Terrie Wetle, associate dean of medicine for public health and public policy.

While the center’s name suggests its association with the field of medicine, the team’s synthesis techniques can be applied to a myriad of disciplines. 

“We see it as a way of approaching information that’s generalizable beyond medicine,” Lau said. The methods could be applied to studies conducted in the realms of ecology, economics or education, he said.

The center’s development will constitute a “gradual transition,” according to Tom Trikalinos, co-director of the center and professor of health services, policy and practice. Trikalinos, who will arrive at Brown March 12, will be joined by colleagues Schmid and Lau in June and September, respectively. Additional Tufts collaborators — physician Issa Dahabreh and computer scientist Byron Wallace — will join the newly-assembled team in the coming months. In addition to their research positions at the center, Schmid and Trikalinos will become part-time faculty members in the biostatistics and health policy and practice departments. 

“One of our key interests is to train the next generation of researchers to carry out methodological research in research synthesis,” Lau said. 

The opportunity for training up-and-coming researchers was one of the main motivators behind the team’s move from the Tufts Medical Center to Brown. The University’s bright undergraduate body and the program in public health offered “more opportunities to do such training,” Schmid said.

Seeking to expand their program in an academically rich environment, the Tufts team approached the University with the idea of developing a Center for Evidence-Based Medicine. The Public Health Program recognized the team’s research as “exactly the source of expertise we wanted,” Wetle said. The team will be invaluable in researching how to spend health care dollars on the most effective treatments, she said.

Funding also motivated the establishment of the new center. With funding from the National Institutes of Health “flattening,” the Department of Community Health is seeking to diversify its funding portfolio, Wetle said. The federally funded Tufts team, sponsored by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, will allow the department to fund its institutes and programs from a broader base, she said.

“We feel that this a good match for us. And we think the leadership also thinks that this is a good match. The rest is history, as they say,” Lau said, laughing.

Though the center currently exists only on paper, it will evolve into a full-fledged and vibrant reality over the next several months.

“We are very anxious to learn everything there is to learn about Brown and start building bridges and forging new collaborations,” Lau said.