Biomedical research has progressed so rapidly that medicine is experiencing what experts call a “scientific bottleneck.” Discoveries made by laboratory scientists have provided an enormous amount of new information, but most physicians have not been adequately trained in research to apply that information to the benefit of patients.
To help break this bottleneck that keeps the latest research from reaching patients, the University of Missouri School of Medicine has created the Tom and Anne Smith MD-PhD Program. Tom and Anne Smith of Columbia are providing $2 million in scholarship support for MU students who want to become physician-scientists.
“Anne and I believe that MD-PhD students deserve support in their pursuit to provide all of us with improved health care and quality of life,” said Tom Smith. “For MD-PhD students, a joint degree is a time-consuming and costly venture, but there are great potential rewards by giving students an opportunity to develop lifesaving treatments.”
Students who complete an MD-PhD program are uniquely qualified to conduct, lead and train others in translational — or bench-to-bedside — research, said Douglas Anthony, MD, PhD, director of the Tom and Anne Smith MD-PhD Program.
“By taking advantage of the remarkable advances in our understanding of human biology and the molecular and genetic basis of disease, our MD-PhD graduates will help translate discoveries into new methods for treating, preventing and managing health problems,” Anthony said. “Some of the nation’s brightest medical students are enrolled in the Tom and Anne Smith MD-PhD Program, and they have access to outstanding faculty mentors.”
MD-PhD students pursue a seven- to eight-year course of study that combines the traditional four years of medical school with the four years typically required to earn a PhD. MU physicians provide training in clinical specialties and subspecialties, while other faculty members from across campus provide education in such areas as biochemistry, immunology, microbiology, pathobiology, pharmacology and physiology.
“Physician-scientists and their translational research are expected to put medicine on a new path for the foreseeable future,” said Robert Churchill, MD, the medical school’s interim dean and Gwilym S. Lodwick, MD, and Maria Antonia Lodwick Distinguished Professor in Radiology. “Students who complete MD-PhD programs are well-equipped to understand the significance of scientific discoveries. They can then move faster than many others to develop tests that determine whether the discoveries can be given safely to humans and provide effective treatments for patients.”
MD-PhD graduates also are better able to communicate with both clinical and laboratory researchers, and they are often better prepared to explain the importance of research to patients who could benefit from clinical trials. Physician-scientists in general are expected to become powerful new advocates for educating the public about the importance of translational research, as well as making translational research happen through their own efforts.
Federal government resources typically fund the PhD portion of the students’ education, but the MD portion amounts to approximately $25,000 a year in tuition alone for the average MU student. And while physician-scientists receive high satisfaction from discovery, teaching and providing patient care, this is often in exchange for a lower salary than a physician would earn in private practice.
Scholarships for MD-PhD students provide immediate benefits to medicine. Medical students are allowed to explore the potential of science during their years of highest creativity and interdisciplinary training. As MD-PhD graduates advance in their careers, scholarships they received as students allow them to have more years of productive research without the enormous burden of tuition debt from medical education. And when MD-PhD graduates complete training in their chosen clinical specialties, they typically return to academic medical centers like MU’s to lead translational research teams and train the next generation of physician-scientists.
“Tom and Anne Smith have provided a transformational gift that will help tear down financial barriers for students considering careers in academic medicine,” said MU Chancellor Brady Deaton, PhD. “The Smiths’ support of MD-PhD students will result in the development of outstanding medical minds at MU. Graduates of their program will also go on to advance patient care, research and education throughout the world.”
Tom Smith received a computer science degree from MU in 1984 and went on to found Datastorm Technologies, a software development company headquartered in Columbia. He is the president of Smith Investment Management, Flat Branch Pub and Brewing, and Sirius Hospitality LLC, which owns the HuHot Mongolian Grill franchise in Columbia and St. Louis. The Smiths, who are deeply devoted to preserving and protecting animals, also support the University Concert Series and have previously established a scholarship endowment in computer science in the College of Arts and Science at MU. In addition, Tom Smith currently serves as a trustee for the Missouri Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
The Tom and Anne Smith MD-PhD Program currently educates nine students and is led by 16 executive committee members. Half of the executive leadership members are physician-scientists with MD-PhD degrees. Anthony, the program director, also is chair of MU’s Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences. He previously helped direct the MD-PhD program at Duke University and developed curricula for medical scientists at Harvard University.