(p. A27) Time and again, physician-scientists have changed the history of medicine by identifying a problem in the clinic and taking to the lab to address it. Alexander Fleming watched men die of sepsis during World War I while serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps, then returned home to create penicillin. Sidney Farber, a young physician at Children’s Hospital in Boston, committed himself to finding treatments for childhood leukemia, and laid the foundation for modern cancer chemotherapy.
In the 1970s, the physicians Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein set out to understand how a young child’s arteries could be as clogged as those of an overweight septuagenarian. This patient-inspired research led to the discovery of LDL-cholesterol receptors, and paved the way for the statin drugs that are taken by millions of people every year in the United States alone.
And more recently, the research efforts of two physicians, Brian Kobilka and one of us, Dr. Lefkowitz, seeking to understand how hormones conferred their biological effects, led to the discovery of a large family of receptors that have formed the basis for the development of hundreds of F.D.A.-approved medications.
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Unfortunately, the career path of the physician-scientist has become longer and a lot less appealing. In the United States, about 20,000 graduates emerge from medical school each year, many with significant debt. Many physicians are well into their 30s by the time they complete their clinical training. Doctors who decide to take the research path face the daunting prospect of many more years struggling to win grants and establish a lab. According to N.I.H. statistics, researchers with medical degrees on average receive their first major N.I.H. grant only at age 45.
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We need to ensure that the brightest young doctors can contribute to further advancements in their field, or we risk stalling the engine that consistently delivers better medicine, longer lives and a stronger economy for Americans and people around the world.
For the full commentary, see:
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sept. 23, 2019, and has the title “We Need More Doctors Who Are Scientists.” The online version says that the commentary appeared on p. A29 of the New York print edition. The commentary appeared on p. A27 of my National print edition.)