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If a student wished to do her thesis research on the molecular and cellular biology of cardiac ion channels and how they relate to human diseases, Cathcart explains, she would be mentored by a clinical researcher in the Cleveland Clinic's Department of Cardiovascular Medicine. The student would attend biweekly conferences sponsored by the clinic's atrial-fibrillation group—cardiologists, cardiac surgeons, radiologists, electrophysiologists, geneticists, cell biologists, nurses, and social workers who share a common interest in cardiac dysrhythmias—to discuss challenging cases and the latest advances in clinical and basic research.
At the end of the semester, the student would make a presentation to the group focused on a relevant translational-research problem—such as development of new targeted therapies directed against specific cardiac ion channels or the use of genomic tools to identify novel genetic changes associated with heightened risk of atrial fibrillation. And throughout the semester, her mentor would bring her to specific clinical sites to observe clinicians and clinical researchers engaged in activities related to a disease of current interest.
Houston's Rice University is working with neighbor University of Texas's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center to train future biomedical engineers in drug design for cancer therapeutics, tissue engineering for reconstructive procedures following surgery, and imaging tools for early cancer detection. Students take five courses and then do clinical rotations in specialties such as diagnostic imaging, radiotherapy, and bone marrow transplantation. "Our goal is to get students to understand the challenges physicians face in their practice and how bioengineering can be clinically useful," says Rebecca Richards-Kortum, a bioengineer and HHMI professor at Rice University who co-directs the program.
At Stanford University, first-year graduate students take basic biomedical science classes alongside medical-school students. They also attend seminars in translational medicine and do an intensive 1- to 2-month clinical rotation. In their second year, students pick labs and mentors for their thesis research. "With only an extra year-and-a-half of training," says neurologist Ben Barres, the program's director, "we can generate a group of basic researchers who understand what goes on in the clinical wards."
Among the key elements emphasized at the program of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) are techniques of modern drug discovery. By working alongside scientists at Birmingham's Southern Research Institute, "students can learn firsthand what it takes to get a drug to the marketplace," says Thomas Clemens, a pathology professor at UAB and the program director.
These programs, as well as the others supported by the Med into Grad Initiative, aim to provide graduate students in basic sciences with the skills to take their own research findings and apply them to clinical situations. In that way, translating basic scientific discoveries into new medical treatments will be not only better but also faster.