Grant program allows residents to pursue own research projects

The School of Medicine recently launched its Mentors in Medicine Research Grants program, which provides mentoring to interested residents as part of their training.

The program is the only one of its kind in the United States.

Christine Yeh is able to pursue her own research thanks to the Mentors in Medicine Research Grants
Christine Yeh, M.D., and 10 other residents can now pursue their own research studies thanks to the Mentors in Medicine Research Grants program. Here, she updates Brian K. Dieckgraefe, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine and director of the program, on her research project with Sam Klein, M.D., the Danforth Professor of Medicine, which compares the Atkins Diet to a low-fat diet. — Photo by Bob Boston

“During residency, many physicians are unable to pursue research unless they work in the laboratory of an established investigator,” said Brian K. Dieckgraefe, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine and director of the program. “Because this program provides funding, these residents can pursue their own research interests.”

As part of the program, which is generously funded by a consortium of pharmaceutical firms, 11 medical school residents have received funding to conduct basic and clinical research. They still are paired with established investigators, but because they have funding, residents in the program now have the ability to look into questions that interest them.

As with most research awards, grants from Mentors in Medicine were awarded only after residents demonstrated the value of their projects through a competitive application process. University faculty members reviewed the proposals, and they awarded 11 new grants, providing funding between $3,000 and $6,000 per project.

This year, the program awarded approximately $75,000 to fund research projects, but unlike much of the research sponsored by pharmaceutical firms, the investigators funded through this program are not necessarily testing particular treatments designed by those drug companies.

“This program is intended to provide our residents with opportunities to interact more closely with faculty and to help feed the hunger that many of them develop to truly begin addressing some of the patient-relevant problems they encounter on a daily basis,” said Daniel M. Goodenberger, M.D., professor of medicine and director of the department’s House Staff Training Program.

Projects funded in this first year of the program include a comparison of two FDA-approved therapies for heart failure to determine whether one is better at increasing exercise capacity in heart-failure patients.

Another study will look at whether selenium supplements might reduce the risk of colon cancer. One project will investigate an antibody therapy to inhibit immune system cells to learn whether that can help patients with ulcerative colitis.

Another will compare the effects of the Atkins Diet to a standard low-fat diet based on the Food Pyramid by examining the effects of the two diets on markers for heart disease in patients with type 2 diabetes.

“We think the projects that have been funded spring from good ideas that can be pursued more easily because the residents now bring something to ‘the table,'” Dieckgraefe said. “One of the barriers to hooking up students with interested mentors is that money is tight everywhere, and it’s difficult to pursue even good ideas without funding.

“With these grants, mentors are less likely to balk at spending money to pursue these new ideas.”

The Mentors in Medicine Program can also help the pharmaceutical firms involved.

“A program like this can be a benefit both to our students and to the drug companies,” Goodenberger said. “Not only will these projects help our residents learn about organizing and conducting research, but the projects can also assist the pharmaceutical firms by training these residents in how to conduct clinical research.

“Drug companies rely on good clinical researchers to investigate treatments that are developed, and currently there is a shortage of good people trained to do this translational, clinical research.”

The 11 projects funded this year provide a good start, but Goodenberger and Dieckgraefe said they hope the program will grow. They would like to fund between 20-25 projects annually. That would give about one-quarter of the residents at the University a chance to pursue their own research during their training.

In addition to the educational opportunities the program provides, it also might provide some answers to questions that medical residents face each day.

“They’re on the front lines dealing with patients,” Dieckgraefe said. “That contact can reveal opportunities and problems in treating patients with all sorts of diseases. Not every treatment will be as revolutionary as the X-ray or penicillin, but these projects should help us take incremental steps to improve patient care.”