New degree in translational medicine

If the School of Medicine is going to live up to its mission of translational research, it needs more people to do the translating—scientists who really know the language of the clinic and the lab.

A new degree program, one of the few programs of its kind in the country, aims to help fill that gap by training a new generation of translational scientists: researchers who will turn basic discoveries into treatments for patients. The new Master's of Science in Medicine program was unanimously approved Dec. 1 by the university's Academic Senate.

Under the new program, students on a PhD track in the basic sciences would complete rigorous pre-clinical course work on human biology and then spend one to two intensive months doing clinical rotations. The first crop of students will begin the program in the fall of 2006.

"We have all these basic biomedical advances, but we're not successful in converting them into treatments for patients. I think a huge part of the problem is we haven't taught researchers about basic human diseases," said Ben Barres, MD, PhD, a professor of neurobiology and of developmental biology who initiated the program and will serve as its director.

Barres, who does translational research on multiple sclerosis, noted that there are no drugs that have emerged in the last two decades to slow or halt the progress of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, despite an explosion of knowledge in the field. He believes that's due in large part to a shortage of MD/PhDs, whose numbers have declined by about 10 percent in the last two decades.

"Currently, we're doing a very good job of teaching MDs how to do research, but I think there's a feeling by many people, including the National Research Council, that we need to do a better job of teaching PhDs about human disease," said Barres, who's also co-director of the medical school's Neurosciences Institute.

"We're doing a good job of teaching PhDs about mice and worms," he added, "but not about humans."

Barres said that graduate students often come in feeling passionate about human disease but become channeled into bench work, never getting a chance to learn about human biology or the problems that afflict people. Many have clamored for a program that gives them more of the human side of science, he said.

The program would add an extra year or year-and-a-half to the usual four or five years that PhD students spend at Stanford, said Ellen Porzig, PhD, associate dean for graduate education and an associate professor of developmental biology. But it would be significantly shorter than a traditional MD/PhD program, Barres noted.

The new program will accept six students its first year and up to 10 students a year after that, all selected from applicants to the 12 PhD programs in biosciences, bioengineering, chemistry, physics and biomedical informatics. The program would not add to the number of graduate students at the university.

"For students looking for state-of-the art research, we now have the added advantage of being able to bridge the chasm between the language and practice of pre-clinical training and their training in basic science research," Porzig said. "So I think this new graduate program will complement the Medical Scientist Training Program to set Stanford up nicely to be a leader in this area."

The program will be housed in the Department of Neurobiology, though students will be exposed to all aspects of medicine. Porzig said Barres is an ideal professor to have at the helm of the new initiative, as he's an outstanding teacher whose own work is very strong on translational research.

Barres said a similar, highly successful program was started at Harvard Medical School in the early 1980s but was discontinued for lack of funding. Harvard plans to restart the program next fall, he said.

The Stanford program, which will cost $74,000 per year per student, will be funded largely through private grants. Amgen Foundation has agreed to underwrite the costs for three students, said Barres, who has additional funding proposals pending at private foundations. The medical school also has made a financial commitment to the program, he said.