Since the early days of federal research funding, PhD researchers have outnumbered those with MD degrees. A flow of physicians out of academic medical centers and into private practice in the late 1980s and early 1990s widened the disparity, severing the ties between the departing clinicians and their grant-eligible research environment. "Translational research, which extends discovery to the patient, should inherently include physicians as researchers and innovators. The NIH "K" Awards system is an attempt to redress this imbalance," said Cynthia Morris, PhD, MPH, Vice Chair of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology, Professor of Medicine, Public Health and Preventative Medicine. "K awards offer ten to fifteen programs to facilitate and improve the career development of early clinician investigators, and attract them into the investigator environment." As part of the award, training is provided in the basic sciences and in clinical translational science.
"In 2001, we had fewer than five awards," said Dr. Morris. "Now, OHSU and the VA have at least 65 mentored career development awards between them."
Robert O'Rourke, MD, Associate Professor, Department of Surgery and Co-Director of the department's Bariatric Surgery Program, is one of OHSU's K awardees. "Most of my clinical practice involves the use of surgery in the treatment of morbid obesity," he said. "There's no doubt that surgical techniques are effective, but there is also a huge need for research to help us better understand and address the underlying long term causes and effects of obesity."
Nine months into his five-year award, Dr. O'Rourke is focusing on the role of inflammation in mitigating some of the diseases regularly associated with obesity. "We know that diseases such as diabetes and artherosclerosis in obese patients are significantly related to underlying chronic systemic inflammation in those patients," he said. "My research is dedicated to finding molecular and cellular hooks that will allow us to intervene and apply non-surgical techniques to the treatment of obesity-related diseases."
OHSU's program for early research scholars in clinical and translational science in the Oregon Clinical and Translational Research Institute is designed to support applicants and awardees at every stage.
"This kind of support is a critical ingredient in successful applicants becoming successful investigators," said Dr. Morris. Dr. O'Rourke agreed. "Without the support of OCTRI, my department chair Dr. Hunter, and my mentor, Dr. Dan Marks, my chances of taking this work to the NIH's R01 funding level would be greatly reduced. My patients are also a major part of this collaboration. With their consent, we use tissue samples from clinical surgical procedures to test in the research lab. Their participation in this way allows us to expand our avenues of enquiry many times over."
"This is an important OHSU pipeline for new investigators and getting people through the K phase and into the next, independent investigator phase -- in other words getting these junior people into the RO1 or VA merit review grant category," said Eric Orwoll, MD, Professor, Department of Medicine, Associate Dean for Clinical Research and Director of OCTRI, "and we're working on methods to make that even more successful."
Pictured above: Dr. O'Rourke