Filling the bench-to-bed gap

“Since the early 1970s, the gap between basic science and medicine has increased largely because science has become more complicated,” Irwin Arias of the Tufts University School of Medicine wrote in a report last year. “Physicians are not entering patient-oriented research at a time that provides the greatest opportunities for research into the cause, mechanism, prevention and treatment of major diseases.”

Nationwide, there is room for about 2% of first-year medical students in the medical scientist training programs leading to the type of combined MD/PhD degree held by Christopher Hug.

And medical students are not exactly pounding on the doors of labs. “Only 6% of first-year matriculants think curing disease is the most important purpose of medicine,” noted Eric Neilson of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine last year in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. “The average person on the street seems more committed to medical research than our students.”

Other factors discouraging a dual career include the prolonged training, the burden of keeping up in two fast-moving professions, the competitiveness for research funding, the pressure for doctors to see more patients, and the time and motivation to do both.

The National Institutes of Health offers funding specifically for patient-oriented research for investigators at the beginning and middle of their careers. NIH also has a program to pay off the large debts of recently graduated doctors who conduct patient-oriented research.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute launched a $10 million program in December that awards grants to science graduate programs that incorporate medicine and pathophysiology. HHMI already supports two programs that introduce medical students to basic research. Other private foundations also provide support to physician-scientists, such as the Charles H. Hood Foundation Child Health Research grant that funds Hug’s work. And the pediatric pulmonary division of Children’s chips in as well.


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The double life of Christopher Hug

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