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Friday, August 10, 2007
Each year United States medical schools graduate thousands of newly-minted physicians. Yet only a small number of these physicians pursue careers in academic research. The reasons for this outcome are many, but two in particular rank at the top of the list every year: Lack of financial support and insufficient time for research.
Long a supporter of physician-scientists, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has decided to focus expanded resources on a cadre of physicians who demonstrated an early interest in research by taking time off from medical school to spend a year or more in the lab. Each year, alumni of the HHMI-National Institutes of Health Research Scholars Program and the HHMI Research Training Fellowships for Medical Students are invited to apply for Early Career Awards as they begin their careers as physician-scientists. This year, HHMI has increased the number, size, and duration the grants.
“Physician-scientists are uniquely positioned to translate research discoveries into direct benefits for patients,” said Peter J. Bruns, vice president for grants and special programs at HHMI. “The research these talented young scientists are doing has the potential to have a tremendous impact on public health.”
With its newest group of awardees, the Institute is investing $7.5 million to help ensure that promising physician-scientists have the resources they need to launch their careers. The 20 awardees selected this year will receive $375,000 over a five-year period. When the Institute announced its first early-career awards in 2006, 13 grantees received $150,000, awarded over a three-year period.
The funds must be used for direct research expenses and are meant to provide resources during a critical time for scientists: once they have completed their mentored training and are working toward establishing and obtaining funding for their own laboratories. The recipients' institutions must agree to let the young physician-scientists, who are in tenure-track positions, spend at least 70 percent of their time doing research.
“These awards support young investigators at a very precarious point in their academic careers,” said William Galey, program director for HHMI's graduate education and medical research training programs. “It's a time when they have to make a decision as to how much science they will do. It's not easy to go back and do science once you've started down the clinical path, so it's really important to get a good solid footing early in your career. These awards help protect physician-scientists from the demands of clinical service, and allow them the time and funds to do science.”
Applications were reviewed by a panel of leading physician-scientists. In evaluating each applicant's ability and promise for a research career, the panel considered the quality and quantity of formal research training, the commitment of the applicant's research institution, the quality of the research environment, the applicant's commitment to pursuing a biomedical research career, and the quality of the proposed research plan.
The early-career awards complement several other HHMI programs that aim to encourage individuals with medical training to pursue research careers. The Research Scholars Program makes it possible for medical and dental students from around the country to spend a year living and working at the NIH, while the Medical Fellows Program enables students to conduct research at other institutions.
The Institute also supports physician-scientists though its investigator program, which gives outstanding, creative scientists the freedom and support to pursue innovative research. As many as 15 additional physician-scientists are expected to be named HHMI investigators in the fall of 2007.
Sridhar Ramaswamy, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center will investigate how mesenchymal cells - which develop from the middle layer of an embryo and are found in most human tumors -- influence tumor growth and development. He wants to create mesenchymal cell lines with different genetic profiles and monitor their effects on the growth, survival, and differentiation of human epithelial cancers. The results of his studies should provide new information about the signals these cells emit that drive cancer progression. Ramaswamy intends to apply information from this study towards a better understanding of how cancer spreads.
Learn more about the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
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