Supporting tomorrow’s clinician-scientists

MD/PhD student Philip Edgcumbe in the lab.

MD/PhD student Philip Edgcumbe in the lab

Philip Edgcumbe’s latest invention flips organs inside-out. The miniature projector he developed, dubbed the “Pico Lantern,” overlays a map of subsurface blood vessels on organs during minimally invasive surgeries. The result? The promise of faster, less costly surgeries, with a reduced risk of surgeons accidentally nicking blood vessels and causing surgical bleeds.

As a sixth-year MD/PhD student at UBC, Edgcumbe has combined engineering and medical research to develop this ground-breaking surgical technology. Edgcumbe says his invention wouldn’t be possible without the combined training of an MD/PhD, which teaches future physicians to integrate clinical and research roles by completing medical school alongside graduate training.

He believes no other program would give him the same skills to bridge gaps between biomedical engineering and medicine, or teach him how to take ideas from the lab to the operating table.

“Without that combined training, I don’t think I would have come up with what seemed like a little bit of an oddball idea,” says Edgcumbe, who turned down offers at Stanford and MIT to enrol in UBC’s MD/PhD program.

The program that catalyzed Edgcumbe’s innovation is now at risk. In June 2015, the Canadian Institutes of Heath Research cancelled its baseline funding of $1.8 million for Canadian MD/PhD programs. As a result, Edgcumbe worries future students — and patients — won’t have the chance to benefit from clinician-scientist training.

CIHR formerly provided up to 100 annual studentships across Canada, which allowed MD/PhD trainees to focus full-time on their studies and research without needing to take on extra employment. As a seven-year, full-time program, the MD/PhD track is an ambitious and expensive haul for students to shoulder — even before taking on a two-to-six-year residency and additional research fellowships.

Dr. Lynn Raymond, director of UBC’s MD/PhD program, says funding is absolutely necessary to attracting and retaining top students — in other words, UBC’s program couldn’t exist without it. “Our policy is to make sure any student we admit to the program has minimum stipend support for the program’s duration,” she says. “Now that CIHR has terminated any new funding to the program, we’ll gradually lose an important resource for our program over time.”

“I was shocked,” recalls professor emeritus and former infectious diseases division head Dr. Anthony Chow, who directed UBC’s program from 1996 to 2006. A retired clinician-scientist himself, Dr. Chow knows MD/PhD streams have long been the best training ground for clinician-scientists — some of the most important players in developing new therapies, diagnostic tools and surgical approaches, and then bringing them to patients. While physicians can conduct research without an MD/PhD, the specialized clinician-scientist training is one of the only ways students are specifically taught how to have clinical work inform their research and vice-versa.

Donating to bolster UBC’s MD/PhD program was an easy decision for Dr. Chow. In August, he made the first philanthropic gift to the program by creating the Dr. Anthony Chow MD/PhD Studentship, which will support one MD/PhD studentship for six years. He hopes that others will join him in rebuilding the MD/PhD student support that has been so vital for UBC’s program to thrive.

Dr. Chow says the students and alumni themselves show the worth of an MD/PhD. After graduating, the majority of MD/PhDs will enter a specialized residency and research-intensive fellowship through a clinician investigator program, many of whom currently hold faculty positions at universities across Canada. Current students run the gamut of research, ranging from investigating the use of peptide sequences to treat Alzheimer’s disease, to querying the role of fathers in the health outcomes of HIV-positive infants.

“They’re our last hopes in terms of maintaining this tradition,” Dr. Chow says. He fears that without stipends to assist them through the taxing MD/PhD program, students will no longer pursue clinician-scientist careers. The UBC MD/PhD program admitted three students to start this September, but needs donor funding to help support students in coming years; without such donations, the UBC program will turn away top applicants in the near future, as the Program will only offer admission to students for whom stipend support is available.

Edgcumbe’s Pico Lantern is well on its way to being used in operating rooms, having recently been licensed to Waterloo’s Northern Digital Inc., a leader in surgical navigational technology. He hopes to continue joining clinical work with developing crucial medical technology during his residency — two short years away — in either surgery or radiology.

While his graduate funding was not affected by the CIHR cuts, Edgcumbe worries for the future of MD/PhDs without guaranteed financial support. The loss of clinician-scientists, he says, would not only be a loss for the profession, but for the quality of medical research and health care.

“If we stop training MD/PhD students, who is going to translate the billions of dollars spent on basic research into treatments that benefit patients?” Edgcumbe asks. “Dr. Chow is an inspiration and role model for all of us in the MD/PhD program. In the absence of the CIHR funding, we are very grateful that the program is being supported by people like Dr. Chow.”

UBC’s MD/PhD program needs philanthropic support to continue training Canada’s clinician-scientists of tomorrow. To learn more about how you can help, please contact Lisa Slater at 604.822.7087 or lisa.slater@ubc.ca.