Physician-scientists who are both clinically trained and expert researchers are essential to the successful translation of scientific discovery into more effective patient therapies. They have the unique capacity to blend their insights from treating patients and working in the laboratory in a way that enables and accelerates medical advances. However, the pipeline of physician-scientists is dwindling. The decline in this vital cadre of cancer researchers is occurring at a time when cancer research holds the greatest promise of improving survival and quality of life among cancer patients. A growing shortage of physician-scientists means that major laboratory research discoveries will progress to patient application ever more slowly. If the shortage continues unabated, some may not reach patient application at all, thus presenting a crisis in cancer research.
There are two major obstacles to recruiting more physicians into research careers:
Financial: By the time physicians have completed medical school and their clinical training, they are in their late 20s or early 30s. They are buying homes and starting families. Many also finish medical school with significant educational debt (averaging >$150,000). If they go into private practice, they can immediately begin earning several hundred thousand dollars a year. If they choose research careers, they will earn considerably less, more in the range of $70,000-$100,000. Therefore, many physicians who are interested in research feel they cannot afford that career.
Opportunity: Unless a physician is enrolled in a joint MD/PhD program upon entering medical school, it is very difficult to obtain the extensive research training necessary to perform cutting-edge cancer research after medical school. Physicians who decide later in medical school or during their clinical fellowship that they are drawn to research (“late bloomers”) find themselves at a disadvantage, because they lack sufficient research experience to be competitive with MD/PhD scientists for existing funding opportunities.
In an effort to confront the crisis arising from a growing dearth of physician-scientists, Damon Runyon wishes to encourage more physicians to pursue research careers. To do so, the Foundation established a program designed to recruit outstanding U.S. Specialty Board eligible physicians into cancer research careers by providing them with the opportunity for a protected research training experience under the mentorship of a highly qualified and gifted mentor after they have completed all of their clinical training. The goals are a) to transform these individuals into the highest quality physician-scientists, capable of conducting research that has the potential to transform the diagnosis, treatment and/or prevention of cancer and b) to eliminate the financial disincentive to entering this career path.
This award will provide a funding source that will enable these individuals to pursue research intensively (at least 80% effort) for up to four years, while, if they wish to maintain their clinical skills, continuing to be clinically active (no more than 20% effort). With the recognition that very few other funding sources (if any) exist to support these developing physician-scientists, this award is structured to provide recipients with significant salary support and necessary research expenses, with the expectation that their institutions will provide an environment and additional support (such as benefits and institutional overhead) to ensure their success. In addition, the Foundation will retire up to $100,000 of any medical school debt still owed by an award recipient.