Take a closer look at MD Anderson doctors, and you’ll notice many have two sets of letters after their names – M.D. and Ph.D.
That means not only did they spend four years in medical school, plus a residency and a fellowship (or two) learning to prevent, diagnose and treat disease, but they also labored in the laboratory for several additional years.
This select cadre of medical professionals that trains in both medicine and research are called physician-scientists. They bridge the gap between bench and bedside and are the driving force behind today’s most promising cancer discoveries.
MD Anderson plays a key role in training physician-scientists. Since 1982, the institution has served as a training site for the Medical Scientist Training Program, a joint program of MD Anderson and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). The program has graduated 112 students since its inception.
Students in the rigorous, seven-to-nine-year program earn a medical degree from UTHealth’s McGovern Medical School and a doctorate from MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS). The program also partners with the University of Puerto Rico College of Medicine, as part of a federally funded effort to eliminate disparities in cancer outcomes between the mainland United States and Puerto Rico.
Competitive and rigorous
Each year, 200 students apply for just a handful of spots – up to nine this year from last year’s five – thanks to new funding from the National Institutes of Health. Program directors look for top students with a passion for both medicine and science.
“To get through such long and strenuous training, you really have to have that burning desire to do research, and be ready to experience all the disappointments and excitement that goes along with it,” says Dianna Milewicz, M.D., Ph.D., the program’s director.
Students complete their first three years of medical school before starting their dissertation research – a unique and critical aspect of the program, says Milewicz, because students don’t start evaluating patients, diagnosing problems and recommending treatment plans until their third year of medical school.
“After they’ve seen patients, they begin to understand how much we know, but also how little we know about how to diagnose and treat diseases,” she says. “Then they go into their dissertation research with that kind of knowledge and understanding. And it allows them to be much more aligned in the area of medicine they want to go into in the future.”
Before selecting a laboratory where they’ll pursue their dissertation research, students test the waters with three research tutorials, choosing from more than 500 faculty with research interests spanning the entire spectrum of biomedical sciences. During their years in the lab, they also spend half a day a week in the clinic, treating patients with the disease they are studying.
Finding a field that fits
These hands-on learning experiences are designed to train students to be successful physician-scientists and steer them toward their ideal field of study.
Dallas native Maureen Aliru, a graduate of Rice University with a degree in bioengineering, credits her introduction to radiation oncology at MD Anderson for cementing her interest in the field.
She’s studying nanomaterials for cancer therapy in the laboratory of Sunil Krishnan, M.D. Nanoparticles are microscopic particles that accumulate in cancer cells and enhance the effects of radiation to kill tumor cells. After graduating, Aliru plans to apply for a medical residency in radiation oncology.
“This is a field that has a lot of potential for discoveries and advancements that could provide considerable benefits for patients,” she says.
Radiation oncology also captured the imagination of Vincent Bernard, a student who’s currently part of the partnership with the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine. Bernard has a degree in chemical and biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
Now a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of Anirban Maitra, M.B.B.S., he’s working on liquid biopsies as an alternative to needle biopsies for patients with pancreatic cancer. The technology allows clinicians to track how tumors respond to therapy in real time without the need for expensive, invasive procedures.
Bernard will soon return to Puerto Rico for his final year of medical school, where he’ll complete a residency in radiation oncology.
“Being able to take a patient from what they may consider a death sentence to a cure is an incredible journey that I hope I can help my patients through,” he says.
For Neima Briggs, a University of Texas at Austin honors biology graduate and Fulbright Scholar, it was the tiny, but terrible, human whipworm that seized his attention in the laboratory of MD Anderson immunology expert Jagannadha Sastry, Ph.D.
Briggs collaborated with Sastry and Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and director of Texas Children’s Hospital’s Center for Vaccine Development, to identify and evaluate vaccine candidates against the common intestinal parasite, which causes malnutrition and inflammatory bowel disease in an estimated billion people worldwide.
“I believe my future work as a physician-scientist in infectious disease will likely intersect with oncology,” says Briggs, adding that about 18 percent of cancers are related to infectious diseases.
He finished his medical degree this May and will now complete a Physician-Scientist Training Program that integrates an internal medicine residency with an infectious disease fellowship.
Future cancer fighters
Having established connections at MD Anderson, many graduates launch their careers at the cancer center. In this way, the physician-scientist program acts as a pipeline for top talent.
Notable alumni include endometrial cancer expert Russell Broaddus, M.D., Ph.D.; Faye Johnson, M.D., Ph.D., who’s advancing therapies for head and neck and lung cancers; and Michael Davies, M.D., Ph.D., who leads the Melanoma Moonshot program.
Today’s M.D./Ph.D. students will grow into tomorrow’s cancer fighters, says Medical Scientist Training Program co-director George Calin, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Experimental Therapeutics at MD Anderson.
“Clinicians who have a very organized and strong research training will better understand the mechanisms of cancer, and therefore have a better chance to develop new treatments,” Calin says. “They’ll contribute to the momentous discoveries of the next decade of clinical practice.”