Medical student gains science fame, but may be the last

August 26, 2011

David Solomon, an MD/PhD student at the Georgetown School of Medicine, recently gained international recognition for his research identifying a genetic mutation, called STAG2, that is a precursor to some cancers. Solomon, however, may be one of the last success stories to come out of the program, as funding for the MD/PhD program was cut in 2006.
An MD/PhD program at Georgetown is divided into two years of medical school, three to four years of PhD work, and a final two years of medical school work, Despite the success of individual students like Solomon, GUSOM remains the only top-50 medical school that does not have a funded MD/PhD program.
Solomon is currently working on identifying a drug that would target cancer cells with the STAG2 mutation.
“I was fortunate,” Solomon said. “A funded program is the only feasible way to do an MD/PhD program, and I could not have come to at Georgetown without a funded position.”
While science PhD programs tend to be funded by the federal government, living expenses and tuition for the four-year MD program cost students approximately $260,000.
“No one wants to go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and then live on a scientist’s salary,” said Dr. Todd Waldman, Director of the MD/PhD program at GUSOM and Solomon’s research mentor.
Federally funded medical schools in the U.S. receive grants for MD/PhD programs from the National Institute of Health’s Medical Scientist Training Program. Other universities, like Georgetown, fund their programs internally. When Georgetown had a funded program, they admitted around three students a year, according to Waldman. In comparison, MSTP-funded schools like the Harvard/Massachusetts Institute of Technology MD/PhD program provide funded positions to 10 to 12 students annually.
Dr. Howard Federoff, Georgetown’s vice president for Health Sciences and dean of the School of Medicine said the MD/PhD program is the signature of an institution’s commitment to training physician scientists. Solomon emphasizes the importance of the translational nature of the program.
“For people who do PhDs, they’re studying basic biology like how proteins function in a cell,” he said. “They [may not be] asking, ‘How can I exploit my discoveries and translate them into new therapies for patients or diagnostics for diseases?’”
Since funding was cut in 2006, GUSOM has had difficulty attracting students. Currently, the program has only nine students across about eight years. The sustainability of the unfunded program has been questioned by several individuals, including Waldman.
Joe Murray, a student who entered the program in 2007, echoed the concern about the GUSOM MD/PhD program becoming non-competitive. Murray entered as one of two MD/PhD students in the second year after the funding cuts and did not receive a funded position. Although recent years have seen some GUSOM medical students joining the PhD programs after admission, Murray said the low matriculation “is not good for the longevity of the program.”
Although Murray expressed his concern about the future of the program, he is content with his decision to shoulder the debt because studying at GUSOM allows him to be close to his family.  Murray said that the program has provided him with a strong background in pathology and physiology, which has benefitted his research in tumor biology.
“[It’s allowed] me to broaden my views of how cancer therapies should be effective,” he said.
Though an article published on the GUSOM website said that Waldman and Federoff are searching for philanthropic funding for the MD/PhD program, the work on raising money for the program is largely a quiet affair.
“There are no bake sales or car washes going on,” Solomon said. “It’s a substantial lump sum of money that would need to be reinvested in this program and I can’t comment on how likely it is for funding to be started [again] this year or next year.”

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