WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Five students in the Wake Forest University School of Medicine Ph.D. program in molecular medicine have recently won awards for their research. The training program is one of the first in the country to provide clinical training to doctoral students who are studying the biology of cells and molecules.
“The overall objective of the program is to educate future investigators in research that translates to human disease,” said Charles McCall, M.D., professor of molecular medicine. “These awards attest to the program’s success.”
The training program is one of two molecular medicine programs in the country funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to train four students a year. Of 35 students currently enrolled in the program, six have been supported by the training grant and nine have been awarded individual fellowships from the NIH or other organizations.
“This program focused on translational research before the concept was developed nationally,” said McCall, referring to an effort by the NIH for the nation’s scientists to focus on rapidly “translating” knowledge from the laboratory to the bedside to benefit patients. “It meets a major objective of the new Roadmap Program of the NIH.”
The awards will pay for the students to complete the research phase of their training. The goal of their projects is to apply the latest knowledge of molecular medicine, the science of exploring what goes wrong at the cellular level, to better define the cause or treatment of disease.
Students are taught by both physicians and basic scientists from a variety of fields, including internal medicine, biochemistry, regenerative medicine, surgery, neuroscience, genetics, microbiology/immunology, and cancer biology.
The program includes two years of classes and three years of research with an established scientist. Before beginning the research phase of the program, students have an eight-week clinical rotation and a semester-long class in human physiology and disease. For example, a student whose laboratory research will focus on diabetes accompanies endocrinologists on hospital rounds and discusses actual cases, seeing the problems that patients face.
“It is unique for doctoral students to get this type of clinical training,” said Kevin High, M.D., co-director of the program. “It is nearly impossible to impart the impact of one’s research by reading printed materials – they learn to understand the context of disease, the impact the disease has on physical, mental and social function, and the applicability of the research they are doing.”
In the Molecular Basis of Human Diseases course, students examine actual case scenarios, including the symptoms presented by the patient, results of the physical examination, and diagnostic results, including x-rays and other scans, biopsy results, and laboratory tests. Group discussions focus on physiology and the molecular mechanisms of health and disease. Once the diagnosis is revealed, students learn more about treatments and how they work, how to design clinical research studies to test new therapies, and the gaps in current knowledge within the field.
The program, which began in 1998 under the direction of Floyd “Ski” Chilton, Ph.D., is co-directed by High, an infectious diseases specialist, and Linda McPhail, Ph.D., a biochemist.
The training program admits four to seven new students each year. Its goals include educating biomedical scientists who can move efficiently and productively between basic science and clinical settings and who can develop novel molecular approaches to treat human disease.
The recent award winners are:
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Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university’s School of Medicine. U.S. News & World Report ranks Wake Forest University School of Medicine 18th in family medicine, 20th in geriatrics, 25th in primary care and 41st in research among the nation's medical schools. It ranks 32nd in research funding by the National Institutes of Health. Almost 150 members of the medical school faculty are listed in Best Doctors in America.