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Med-Into-Grad Program Fills Gap in Training Ph.D.s for Translational Research

SALT LAKE CITY—Discoveries in bioengineering, genetics, pharmacology, and other sciences are critical for medical advancement, but the time it takes for those findings to actually result in new treatments or diagnoses of disease can be exasperatingly slow.

Two University of Utah physician-scientists believe addressing that issue will require a transformation in the way non-physician, Ph.D. researchers are trained to think about clinical applications for their discoveries, and to help effect that change, they are starting one of the nation’s first programs to offer a master of science in clinical investigation (MSCI).     

The new Med-into-Grad program and degree, according Dean Y. Li, M.D., Ph.D., professor of internal medicine and head of the U of U Program in Molecular Medicine, and Anne M. Moon, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics and an investigator in the molecular medicine program, will give Ph.D. researchers training and skills that doctoral programs don’t teach, but are critical for accelerating the pace at which basic-science discoveries are brought from “bench to bedside.” Li, director of the new program, and Moon, co-director, received a four-year, $700,000 Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant to fund the curriculum.

“Basic-science training is becoming increasingly specialized. A researcher can learn how to make a gene-targeted mouse without really understanding how it relates to human health,” said Moon. “The master of clinical investigation training will give doctoral candidates the ability to make those connections.”

Both government and private granting agencies increasingly are emphasizing results-oriented “translational” research – the process of using laboratory discoveries to find new clinical applications for health care as quickly as possible.  The Med-into-Grad classes and program, which get under way next fall, will address that need by giving Ph.D. students in a range of scientific disciplines a grounding in basic principles of medicine and pathophysiology (the study of changes in the human body related to disease or other problems), current major challenges in human health, how to read and understand scientific literature, the genetics of diseases, and other subjects.

The curriculum also will include two-day “boot camps” on grant writing and translational research and technology development to help basic-science investigators view their work in the context of practical applications in medicine and industry, as well as a variety of elective courses.

Li and Moon intend to take advantage of existing programs, such as the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) Initiative and HHMI, to give students the opportunity to work in internships with world-class researchers who are bringing their discoveries into clinical use and commercialization.  The Utah Legislature established USTAR in 2006 to promote economic development and give the state’s research universities funding to recruit scientists whose work has the potential to produce new technologies and other discoveries that can create jobs and drive the economy. HHMI funds biomedical-research investigators nationwide, including at the U of U, to pursue biological sciences discoveries that can bring new therapies and technology to health care.

"We want to build on something the U of U and the state already have invested in,” Moon said.

The MSCI program is open only to current Ph.D. candidates, with just six students a year being accepted into the degree track. Moon expects stiff competition for those spots. But the smaller class size will work to the advantage of those who are accepted. “The HHMI grant will allow us to pay all additional tuition associated with classes in the program,” she said. “We’d rather have fewer people in the program, but offer them more support.”

But the goal of the Med-into-Grad program and curriculum is to expose as many trainees to more comprehensive medical science education. So even though the number of MSCI degree spots is limited, any interested pre- or post-doctoral fellow (or faculty member) can take classes offered by the Med-into-Grad program, and apply for the boot camps and internships. If the program is successful, the HHMI grant can be renewed in four years.

Though the focus is to reshape scientific training at the University of Utah, Li hopes the program will serve as a springboard for training the type of workforce needed to sustain and grow the state’s biotechnology industry.

“Our program will foster quality collaborations in interdisciplinary translational research here at the University of Utah and in the academic and industrial futures of our trainees,” he said. “These individuals will be qualified to ask the relevant questions, make the seminal discoveries, and assist in effectively and rapidly exploiting their medical potential.”