The Department of Medicine (DOM) has made Translational Research (TR) a top priority. TR facilitates the “translation” of molecular discoveries to actual patients and populations. It requires a different way of thinking at all stages of the journey from a discovery in an animal lab to the point that, following successful clinical trials, the government approves the discovered therapy for humans. TR is a critical component of Precision Medicine, a new discipline that aims for “custom-made” therapies for patients, as opposed to the traditional “one treatment fits all model”. This is because in order to apply an optimal therapy to a patient, one needs to understand the molecular and genetic differences that distinguish all patients from one another. Precision and Translational Medicine are now top priorities for both the DOM and the FOMD.
- To optimize the development of new “precision” therapies and diagnostic tests, a researcher studying molecules and animals needs to learn how to think as a clinician; and a clinical researcher needs to understand the principles of molecular research. This is challenging because traditional teaching models focus on one or the other, with the learners following either an exclusive molecular or clinical research career track. Although all recognize the importance of TR, there are surprisingly few examples of training programs worldwide aiming to teach this new discipline to future medical researchers and leaders.
- The number of Physician Scientists, i.e. MDs that spend a large part of their time doing research, has been constantly declining. PS are ideally positioned to conduct TR but they have to excel in both clinical medicine and research and commit to research training in addition to the very length clinical training.
Four years ago, the DOM launched and since then supports a novel training program, teaching the attitudes and skills required to excel in TR, while facilitating the entrance to a PS career track. This is the first training program of its kind in Canada and one of few in the world.
The TM program attracts trainees from diverse backgrounds and levels of training, including trainees with a PhD background and MDs (residents or clinical fellows) wishing to pursue research and a PS career path. Rather than teaching principles of basic or clinical research of specific diseases, the program teaches integrative and overarching concepts and skills to address the many challenges of bringing a molecular discovery to patients with diverse diseases. Since nothing needs to be “memorized”, the final exams are “open book”. Teaching objectives include, among others, new ways to design animal experiments or clinical trials compatible with TR, strategies to attract funding including grant writing skills, effective ways to communicate cross-disciplinary research findings, understanding of regulatory rules and “quality control” principles in both preclinical and clinical research. Most of these principles are not taught in traditionally structured curricula. The trainees can either get credits towards their PhD or towards a novel Masters Program with “specialization in Translational Medicine”, the first of its kind in Canada.
The program uses eClass, the University of Alberta’s centrally learning management system. eClass provides a digital platform in which the reading materials are archived as well as an out-of-class forum for ongoing discussions among trainees. All sessions are recorded through the eClass multimedia environment with Adobe Connect. This allows “live” streaming of sessions to other locations; thus the lectures can be attended interactively online by residents in a remote elective rotation or by trainees from other Universities, or by trainees offline (i.e. a “flipped classroom” environment). For example, in the last year 2 residents from the University of British Columbia completed the program. The ability of residents to obtain a Masters degree during busy core Internal Medicine or specialty residency/fellowship is a significant advantage to our clinical training programs. This integration of research training during clinical training programs (i.e. residency) is an important innovation designed to facilitate entrance to a PS career track. For example, the sessions take place during the internal medicine residency academic half day, where the clinical trainees are protected form clinical duties.
A total of 72 learners have registered to the program so far. Of these, some took credits for their PhD and some participated as “open access” students. Of the 50 trainees that participated in the Masters track, there were 2 junior faculty members, 14 graduate students and 26 residents from core and 10 specialty residency programs. To complete the Masters requirements a submission of a thesis is required. So far 20 trainees have obtained their “Master’s with specialization in Translational Medicine”.
The TR training program is a major investment of the DOM, with many of its faculty contributing over the years. Currently, the program is directed by its founder, Evangelos Michelakis MD, as well as Gopinath Sutendra, PhD, Glen Jickling, MD, PhD and Eleni Karageorgos.