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Industry Pays it Forward in Training Young Researchers

By Mari Serebrov
Washington Editor

With sequestration swinging its two-edged blade through the funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other government research-focused programs, a lot has been said about its impact on the future pipeline of medical researchers. But federal funding isn't the only factor leading to a growing talent drain in the field.

Part of the problem is education. And that's where industry can invest in its own future by exposing students as young as junior high age to experiential learning activities that can show them the opportunities in medical research.

To ensure there will be future generations of researchers, the training pipeline must begin in junior high and continue through high school and undergrad studies, James Sterling, vice president for academic affairs at Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) of Applied Life Sciences, told BioWorld Today.

Too often, young students don't know that pre-med courses can lead to careers other than being a doctor, he said. And they don't understand that as a doctor, they will treat one patient as a time; as a researcher, they could help develop a new therapy that could improve the lives of millions of patients.

Federal and state programs are trying to increase their science outreach to young students, but industry tends to focus its sponsored experiential learning activities on graduate students, Sterling said. By that time, many promising young scientists already may have been lost to other fields.

Drugmakers also could better prepare the next generation of researchers by being more involved in the educational process and letting universities know what kind of preparation is necessary. The current approach to the educational training of scientists is out of step with the corporate world, Sterling said, as many programs still emphasize individual research. But the idea of a scientist working alone is not part of today's corporate landscape.

That realization has given birth to a new degree, a professional science master's, which is more practice-oriented than a PhD. KGI's program, for instance, uses team-based approaches and includes regulatory and business courses. KGI also offers a postdoc professional master's degree to better prepare researchers with doctorates for the corporate world.

The program is designed to help young researchers get out of the postdoc rut caused by a lack of funding, Sterling said, noting that the average age of a researcher getting a first NIH grant is 43. That age is likely to go up as competition increases for fewer dollars.

Funding is a major concern for student researchers, Sonali Talele, a doctoral student at KGI, told BioWorld Today. Her own research on repurposing older drugs to target orphan diseases would be a lot easier if NIH funding were available.

A practicing physician in Mumbai, India, Talele said she came to study in the U.S. because she wanted to know "how drugs reach the bedside of the patient." Doctors, especially in India where they deal with a high volume of patients, write prescriptions on a large scale without thinking about why they're prescribing a specific drug.

Through her studies at KGI, Talele has written an orphan drug designation (ODD) for a potential drug to treat multiple sclerosis and is now working with the National Tay-Sachs & Allied Diseases Association in writing an ODD for a gene therapy that shows potential in the treatment of Tay-Sachs and Sandhoff disease.

In her doctoral program, Talele is examining data to identify a computational method to evaluate the usefulness of an already approved drug to treat a rare disease. She also hopes to develop a method to identify the mechanism of action for rare diseases. Repurposing a drug that already has an established safety profile would be cheaper and faster than developing an entirely new drug for diseases that have no treatment options, she said, noting that what's considered a rare disease in the U.S. is often quite common in other countries.

While an NIH grant would help advance her research, Talele said collaboration with scientists at other research centers is just as important as funding. Student researchers can learn a lot from talking with other scientists, she added.

To be a successful researcher, individuals must have a strong passion for their work, Talele said. Education can awaken that passion. But to fuel the passion, scientists need funding and professional collaboration so they can see the application of their research. Without that, they're likely to choose another field.