CTSI services and resources helped MD-PhD students conduct a clinical trial and publish findings

Updated Nov. 20, 2020

Written by Meghan Meyer

A group of UF medical students who are also pursuing research doctoral degrees switched from training mode to execution mode with real-world impact recently when they published findings of a clinical trial.

The five students in the UF College of Medicine’s MD-PhD Training Program, affiliated with the UF Clinical and Translational Science Institute, found that obese participants and participants with a specific genotype had a stronger response to pneumococcal infection vaccine, and they published their paper “Obesity and STING1 genotype associate with 23-valent pneumococcal vaccination efficacy” in the Journal of Clinical Investigation Insight in May.

The UF MD-PhD program trains a new generation of physician scientists with a focus on multidisciplinary collaboration and team science. As part of the program’s clinical practicum experience, a feature unique to UF, the students asked a question of their choosing, wrote a protocol for human subject research, submitted to various regulatory agencies including the Institutional Review Board, recruited participants, analyzed data, wrote a manuscript, and published the paper. All completed in addition to their expected academic responsibilities.

“The experience has been invaluable,” said lead author Mathew Sebastian, a now third-year medical student. “It could not have been done without the support and many resources of the MD-PhD Training Program and the CTSI.”

“At UF we train our MD-PhD students for the reality of the professional world they will enter upon graduation. They are the next generation of physician scientists, and they will be asked to work in teams across disciplines and to collaborate in order to solve the pressing issues of translational science and improve human health,” said Thomas Pearson, MD, PhD, director of the CTSI Translational Workforce Development Program and the MD-PhD Training Program. “With our practicum, they are able to jump right in and actually conduct a real clinical trial as part of their education, and to use the tools offered by the CTSI, experiencing firsthand the whole spectrum of translational science and working with multiple teams. They will take these experiences with them as they grow into leaders in their fields.”

The practicum bolsters student confidence, preparing them for their own large-scale clinical translational projects.

“It’s all about learning by doing,” said co-author Robert Eisinger, a third-year medical student. “We tackled an important scientific question completely outside of our individual areas of research – and that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The experiences that the clinical practicum offers also allow for students to maintain clinical experience during the PhD years of their dual degree training. “Part of the participant screening involves a history and physical, during which we worked alongside accomplished physician-scientists,” said co-author Hunter Futch, a fourth-year medical student.

Mark Brantly, MD, a professor and vice chair of research in the department of medicine in the UF College of Medicine, served as principal investigator of the vaccine study and helped the students navigate the hurdles of human-subjects research. Serendipity also played a role, Sebastian said. Lei Jin, PhD, an assistant professor who had recently come to the UF College of Medicine, was studying the same vaccine in mice and was proposing that human genetic variations may influence vaccine response. And so Dr. Jin’s team joined the project and helped the students with human genetics.

The students were able to use many CTSI programs and services for their research project. This was made possible by a strong collaboration between the CTSI and the MD-PhD program.

“The resources available are truly amazing and have helped us prepare for our careers as physician scientists, irrespective of our disciplines,” said co-author Chu Hsiao, a fifth-year graduate student in anthropology.

Among the numerous CTSI services they used were:

“This publication was a huge collaborative effort,” co-author Leanne Dumeny, a fifth-year graduate student in pharmacogenomics said. “Getting to experience firsthand how many teams and people it takes to conduct high-impact research was invaluable, and it’s not something many students get to do. We are thankful to everyone involved in this research and in this unique program feature.”