Aiming to encourage and inspire more physicians to develop careers that blend scientific research with patient care, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) has announced that Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis will receive a prestigious, $2.5 million Physician-Scientist Institutional Award.
The award — of which only 10 have been given, five of them this year — is intended to help medical schools create novel programs that enhance the career development of physicians who also want to conduct basic research.
Physician-scientists are considered crucial to developing new therapeutics and approaches to diagnosing and treating disease. But their numbers are declining, with only 1.5% of U.S. physicians today conducting research. While many physician-scientists hold both an MD and a PhD, the new award is targeted to strengthening the research skills of those who have earned only an MD degree.
“Washington University School of Medicine has always been a leader in developing the careers of physician-scientists and has been home to some of the most influential physician-researchers in the history of medicine,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “The Burroughs Wellcome Fund award recognizes this history and provides additional resources for us to expand and enhance that legacy.”
Targeted primarily at MD-only trainees in the School of Medicine’s clinical departments, the award provides seed funding over five years that will help allow for stipends, pilot project funding, loan repayment, mentoring and enrichment activities.
Wayne M. Yokoyama, MD, the Sam and Audrey Loew Levin Professor of Medicine, a highly regarded physician-scientist, will oversee the program as its principal investigator. He also directs the university’s Medical Scientist Training Program, which allows students to earn both an MD and a PhD in a scientific field.
As part of the grant, Yokoyama plans to develop the Interesting Patient Study program, in which medical residents and fellows will be inspired to study patients with complex medical histories and diagnoses alongside basic-science faculty mentors. Further, to address key challenges facing physician trainees, the award will allow for the establishment of the Dean’s Scholar Program, aimed at enhancing such trainees’ scientific preparation and competitiveness, as well as the Community of Academic Physician-Scientists in Training, which will provide events and seminars designed to give trainees a unique identity, networking opportunities, and guidance in navigating their career paths.
“Physician-scientists are critical to medical advancements,” said Yokoyama, who is also a professor of pathology and immunology. “Their research helps to understand the underpinnings of common and rare diseases and illnesses, and to develop new drugs and treatments. However, earning an MD/PhD is not the only way to become a physician-scientist. Many physicians become inspired to conduct research after treating a patient whose condition they want to learn more about, and we intend to foster this interest in our new programs.”
Yokoyama speaks from experience. He does not have a PhD, yet he is internationally recognized for his research on a type of immune cell called natural killer cells.
He and three other faculty members — Melvin S. Blanchard, MD, Misty Good, MD, and Mark E. Lowe, MD, PhD — together applied for the BWF grant on behalf of the School of Medicine.
Blanchard, vice chair for education in the university’s Department of Medicine and director of its Division of Medical Education, co-authored studies in 2018 that detailed a national shortage of physician-scientists and outlined best practices for training physician-scientists.
Compared with MD-only students, there are far fewer MD/PhD students entering medical school, Blanchard said, in part because they need to make an early commitment to the substantial time needed for training, which includes about eight years of combined medical school and PhD training and five to seven years of residency and subspecialty fellowship training. Still, the number of MD/PhD students, many of whom are supported by NIH training grants, has been stable for many years. Thus, the new BWF grant aims to produce more physician-scientists by focusing primarily on the large pool of physicians in the later stages of MD-only training.
Good and Lowe are both physician-scientists who treat patients at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and receive research funding from the NIH.
Good, an assistant professor of pediatrics, runs a research lab focused on necrotizing enterocolitis, a deadly gastrointestinal disease in newborns. In 2018, she co-authored a study that indicated an overall downward trend in NIH funding for pediatric physician-scientists, particularly among those early in their careers.
Lowe, the Harvey R. Colten Professor of Pediatric Science and the vice chair of clinical affairs and strategic planning in the Department of Pediatrics, is best known for his research on childhood gastroenterological disorders, including acute and chronic pancreatitis in children and dietary fat digestion in infants.
BWF is a nonprofit organization that supports biomedical science through research and education. It is based in Research Triangle Park, N.C.