New UCSF Program Provides Link Between Basic and Clinical Sciences Training

By Camille Mojica Rey

UCSF has a long tradition of top-notch graduate programs in the basic biological sciences and, in recent decades, has built one of the best clinical research programs in the country. With its preeminence in these disciplines, UCSF is poised to be at the forefront of the emerging field of molecular medicine, an interdisciplinary field where the best of basic science is applied to disease-related problems. “There is no reason we cannot achieve the same promise in this translational science,” said Louis Reichardt, PhD, Jack D. and DeLoris Lange Endowed Chair in Cell Physiology. “Achieving that promise means breaking down the boundaries between basic science and disease-based research.” Breaking down barriers includes encouraging the next generation of basic science investigators to consider problems relevant to human disease, said Reichardt, who is also a professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UCSF. To that end, the UCSF School of Medicine has established the Molecular Medicine Graduate and Postdoctoral Training Program. Reichardt, who is the new training program’s director, stresses that it is an enrichment opportunity open to all graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The goals of the program are to provide students with exposure to and appreciation for clinically relevant questions and establish in-depth training in translational research for students enrolled in existing training programs. “We want to increase the career opportunities of all the basic science trainees and postdocs on our campus,” said Reichardt, adding that the most creative work in science is done at the boundaries between fields. “We want to help our trainees establish rewarding careers that put them on the cutting edge of science.” Reichardt has been charged with developing the program in conjunction with an advisory board chaired by Keith Yamamoto, PhD, Executive Vice Dean of the UCSF School of Medicine. Currently, the program is funded through various programs, but Reichardt and others are in the process of seeking funding from private foundations, such as those that support research on particular diseases. The program is an example of how the University is implementing its strategic plan, which specifically recommends that UCSF “foster the educational enterprise to keep UCSF at the forefront of health sciences education and meet the growing demand for health care professionals.” The UCSF Strategic Plan, unveiled in June 2007, also states that UCSF should “develop innovative, collaborative approaches for education, health care and research that span disciplines within and across the health sciences.” Future of Biomedical Sciences As a field, molecular medicine strives to understand the molecules involved in normal body functioning, describe the pathogenesis of disease and, based on that knowledge, design specific molecular tools for diagnosis, treatment and prevention. “Our sense is that the future of the biomedical sciences is going to include many career opportunities in applied basic science, both in academia and in the private sector,” Reichardt said. The new program will eventually include two-week mini-courses, symposia and a website that will highlight areas of disease research that could benefit from applied basic biology. The first mini-courses have begun this year, including one on the neurobiology of addiction. Next year’s possible topics include frontotemporal dementia, as well as energy balance and obesity. Each of the P.I.B.S. graduate programs and the B.M.S. graduate program have modified their course schedules for first-year students to enable them to take a selection of these mini-courses. In collaboration with the new Molecular Medicine Pathway for professional students directed by Robert Nussbaum, the Molecular Medicine Graduate and Postdoctoral Training Program will sponsor a weekly “Demystifying Medicine” series in which a basic or translational scientist will be paired with a clinician to describe a specific disease and the major questions that need to be answered to develop a cure. “We want to show our students and postdocs the challenges clinicians are facing and inspire them to tackle one of these problems using the tools and approaches they possess as basic scientists,” Reichardt said. “We also think this series will increase interactions between our medical student and PhD student populations, enhancing education and career development for both.” The Molecular Medicine Graduate and Postdoctoral Training Program was the top recommendation of the medical school’s Graduate Education Mini-retreat held in November 2006. “We wanted to find a way of creating basic scientists who could team up with clinical researchers, speak their language and have an appreciation for questions of clinical relevance,” said Dina Gould Halme, director of science policy for the UCSF School of Medicine Dean's Office. Halme and others decided to include postdoctoral fellows in the training program once they realized the solution was to offer an enrichment program to UCSF’s nearly 700 graduate students, rather than start a new graduate program. “We have 1,100 postdocs on this campus who are actively establishing independent research programs. Our hope is that they will consider addressing clinically relevant problems,” she said. Halme said both students and faculty have been asking for this type of program for years. “It has become increasingly obvious that the future of biomedical science will rely on the team approach,” Halme said. “It’s our job to give our trainees the skills to be part of those teams.”