November 3, 2011

Research Retreat highlights fruits of mentoring programs

Research Retreat highlights fruits of mentoring programs

Ten years ago, Kelly Birdwell was a newly minted M.D. Today she is leading a major study at Vanderbilt University Medical Center to identify genes associated with an increased risk of complications following kidney transplantation.

Kelly Birdwell, M.D.

Kelly Birdwell, M.D.

Birdwell’s rapid rise to assistant professor of Medicine and principal investigator of a $942,000 federal grant was aided by Vanderbilt’s research career development and mentoring programs, established over the past decade.

The fruits of these programs were on display Oct. 28 at the 10th annual Research Retreat at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville.

Organized by the Office of Clinical and Translational Scientist Development, the event was sponsored by the Master of Science in Clinical Investigation (MSCI) and Master of Public Health programs and the Elliott Newman Society.

“You have a startling level of achievement,” said Katherine Hartmann, M.D., Ph.D., associate dean for Clinical and Translational Scientist Development, in her introductory remarks to the early-career scientists in attendance.

During the past six years, the number of career development grants awarded to Vanderbilt by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) increased by more than 200 percent – better than four times the national rate, Hartmann said.

Vanderbilt scientists are nearly three times more likely than their peers elsewhere to win NIH-funded independent research project grants (R01) early in their careers. They “contribute regularly to findings that advance science, that make fundamental changes,” she added.

Vanderbilt “is a charmed place,” Hartmann said, not only because of the top-notch quality of its newer scientists, but because of the Medical Center’s commitment to them. “We’re going to provide what you need to help you make it,” she said.

Birdwell’s grant is a K23 – a career development award in pharmacogenomics and personalized medicine that requires dual mentorship through a Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) and the Pharmacogenomics Research Network (PGRN).

Her PGRN and CTSA mentors at Vanderbilt are, respectively, pharmacogenomics pioneer Dan Roden, M.D., assistant vice chancellor for Personalized Medicine, and internationally known kidney specialist Alp Ikizler, M.D., who also directs the MSCI program. David Haas, M.D., also was an important adviser to her grant.

Birdwell, who earned an MSCI and is a member of the Elliott Newman Society, was one of 17 young researchers who presented their findings at the retreat.

Using Vanderbilt’s DNA database, BioVU, she is studying genetic variations that affect the body’s ability to metabolize tacrolimus, an immunosuppressant given to prevent kidney transplant rejection.

Genetic variations may explain why blood levels of the drug vary so widely among patients, she said. The next step is to see whether these variations also are associated with a higher risk of post-transplant complications, including new onset diabetes. This knowledge may help doctors improve clinical outcomes.

“My long-term goal is to become an independent physician scientist … (to help) bring personalized medicine into clinical practice in the transplant population,” Birdwell wrote in her grant application. “To successfully transition to independent funding, I require continued strong mentorship.”