Biology and medicine have been tightly intertwined since antiquity, but the bond between the two has loosened over the past few decades. With the rise of molecular biology and the more recent advent of the post-genomic era, the life sciences have become increasingly complex and specialized. It can be daunting for biologists to stay abreast of developments in their own specialized realms, let alone keep track of trends in medicine. At the same time, increasing clinical demands and the need to master ever-changing medical technology have placed limits on doctors’ ability to keep up with the rapid pace of advances in basic biology.
Nonetheless, many students entering graduate programs in basic biological disciplines are primarily motivated by a deep desire to improve human health. To help bridge the gap between biological and medical training, Yale’s Combined Program in Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS) has launched the Medical Research Scholars Program (MRSP), a new initiative aimed at helping graduate students in the life sciences embark on careers devoted to medically relevant research.
“As training in biology has become more specialized, it has gotten further away from clinical applications,” says BBS Director Lynn Cooley, Ph.D., professor of genetics, cell biology and molecular, cellular and developmental biology, who will act as MRSP co-director along with Michael J. Caplan, M.D., Ph.D., professor of cellular and molecular physiology and cell biology, and Joseph E. Craft, M.D., professor of medicine and immunobiology. “The goal of this new program is to bring medical training to graduate students learning basic science, including exposure to patients who are dealing with diseases or disease treatments. The hope is that this will inspire the students to direct their basic research projects toward the goal of helping those people,” Cooley says.
The MRSP has been given a head start with an $800,000 grant from the “Med Into Grad” initiative of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), an effort to increase understanding of medical issues among researchers working toward the Ph.D. degree in biological science. The MRSP program will enroll eight to 10 students per year—half first-year and half second-year students—in clinically oriented coursework and “mentored clinical experiences,” during which they will interact with patients under the guidance of physician-scientist faculty members who actively treat patients while carrying out basic research on the biology of human disease.
OrLando Yarborough, a graduate student in genetics with a research interest in hypertension, says that he has carefully chosen courses, mentors and laboratory rotations to complement his clinical interest.
But Yarborough, who is beginning his fourth year at Yale, worries that his and other graduate students’ experience with patients and medically relevant courses is often a matter of “happenstance,” and he welcomes the new program’s more formal route to medical enrichment of the curriculum. “Even though I’m as close as I possibly can get to clinical relevance, the exposure is not directed,” Yarborough says. “The strength of this program is the intention from the outset to strategically expose and train Ph.D. students in clinical pathology and patient interaction.”
One possible benefit of programs like the MRSP will be a quicker translation of discoveries in basic biology labs to useful treatments for patients, says John D. Alvaro, Ph.D., lecturer in psychiatry and administrative director of BBS. “Scientists are not trained to know all the ramifications of their own discoveries, or to be able to move them forward,” Alvaro says. “Bridging basic science and medicine is one way to change this.”
Students have greeted the MRSP initiative with enthusiasm. Out of 102 new students entering the BBS program in the fall, 27 applied for the MRSP; in the current first-year class of 78, 13 applied. “This response is a great indication that the program is hitting a chord and providing an opportunity that is quite timely,” says Cooley.
When the MRSP’s first 10 students enter the program this fall, they will face some familiar challenges as they tackle courses in physiology and cell biology. But they will also have the unusual opportunity to meet patients who may one day benefit from their discoveries. “Students may be inspired by this kind of experience in terms of what kinds of projects they choose to work on,” says Cooley, “based on knowledge not just of disease mechanisms, but of people who have those diseases.”
Khalid Fakhro, a second-year student who works alongside Yarborough in the laboratory of Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D., chair and Sterling Professor of Genetics, is in the first cadre of MRSP students. “Now more than ever, it is imperative to be trained both in the clinical field and the rigor of scientific research,” says Fakrho. “I’m very proud and happy to be part of the group of students who will receive this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”