September 6, 2002

Physician Scientist program provides ‘bridge’ for faculty

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Dr. Jeff Balser

Eight junior faculty members were recently chosen to participate in the Vanderbilt Physician Scientist Development Program (VPSD). Started in 1998, the VPSD was formed to address an alarming decline in the number of physician scientists entering the field of research.

Since 1994 there has been a 31 percent decrease in the number of physician applicants for National Institutes of Health research grants. According to Dr. Jeffrey R. Balser, Associate Dean for Physician-Scientist Development and James Tayloe Gwathmey Chairman of Anesthesiology, the decline in physician scientists seriously threatens the fundamental biomedical research initiatives of centers like Vanderbilt in their mission to develop cures for life-threatening diseases.

Balser, VPSD founder and director, attributes the decline to the additional training, time and cost involved for a physician scientist to establish two careers: a clinical practice and a biomedical research program. There are federal grants available to support such work, but they are limited according to Balser.

“It is essential to provide a ‘bridge’ to support physician scientists between the early training periods and the more established period where physicians compete successfully for federal grants,” Balser said.

The program was initiated through broad-based financial support from the offices of Lee Limbird, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research, Dr. Steven Gabbe, dean of the School of Medicine, Dr. Gerald Gotterer, senior associate dean for Faculty and Academic Administrative Affairs, and Dr. Harold L. Moses, director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. Additional support has recently been obtained from the NIH, allowing the expanded program to support 13 faculty.

The program provides two years of salary support ($75,000 per year) to allow new physician scientists to spend 75 percent of their time conducting research under the direct supervision of an established Vanderbilt investigator.

The multidisciplinary program has included junior faculty from the departments of Surgery, Medicine, Pediatrics, Anesthesiology, Pathology, Radiology, Radiation Oncology, and Neurology. Vanderbilt’s program is modeled after the physician scientist program at Johns Hopkins University, the first institution to introduce an institutional-wide basic research training program for M.D. faculty. Vanderbilt’s institutional program is enhanced, however, in that it focuses on both basic and clinical investigators.

The incoming participants are:

•Dr. Andre LaGrange, assistant professor of Neurology, mentored by chair of Neurology Dr. Robert Macdonald. LaGrange’s research involves structure/function and pharmacology of GABA receptors, with a view to developing a better understanding of seizure disorders and their therapy.

•Dr. Alan J. Herline, assistant professor of Surgery, mentored by Dr. Robert Galloway in Biomedical Engineering. Herline’s research is focused on developing real-time methods for image guidance in hepatic surgery.

•Dr. Stephen Lee, assistant professor of Neurology, mentored by Jonathan Haines, Ph.D., professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics. Lee’s work will apply the methods of genetic epidemiology toward a better understanding of complex neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease.

•Dr. Bo Lu, assistant professor of Radiation Oncology, mentored by Radiation Oncology chair Dr. Dennis Hallahan. Lu’s research involves expanding the understanding of the molecular and genetic factors that determine cell viability during radiotherapy, such as during lung cancer.

•Dr. Prince Kannanderil, assistant professor of Pediatrics, mentored by Dr. Dan Roden, professor and chief of the division of Clinical Pharmacology in the department of Medicine. Kannanderil’s research is focused on understanding the genetic risk factors for cardiac arrhythmias and will involve both clinical trials and studies in genetically altered mice.

•Dr. Josh Peterson, assistant professor of Medicine, mentored by Dr. Robert Dittus, director of the division of General Internal Medicine. Peterson will work with Dittus and Dr. Wes Ely on decision support algorithms in the management of delirium in ICU patients.

•Dr. Anna Spagnoli, assistant professor of Pediatrics, mentored by Dr. Harold L. Moses, director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. Spagnoli’s research involves insulin-like growth factors, with a focus on understanding the biology of chondrogenesis in the human growth process.

•Dr. Cristina Truica, assistant professor of Medicine in the division of Hematology/Oncology, mentored by Drs. Carlos Arteaga and Al Reynolds in the Cancer Center. Truica’s research involves studies of the role of the oncogene beta-catenin in cancer biology.