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Early-Career Physician Scientist Program Renewed

Article Summary
  • The National Institutes of Health has renewed Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Paul Calabresi Career Development Award for Clinical Oncology (K12) grant, which supports early-career physician-scientists.
  • Sylvester has participated in the program since 2018 and each year awards the grant to two or three junior faculty members who demonstrate innovative research approaches and leadership potential.
  • Sylvester’s Design and Management of Cancer Clinical Trials Course, which provides strategic guidance in developing and managing clinical trials, was a crucial element in grant renewal.

Today’s research funding landscape doesn’t only focus on luminary scientists and their significant contributions.

Funding organizations look to promising young investigators as the next generation of scientific leaders and provide their support accordingly.

Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center prioritizes supporting faculty at all levels, with grants a considerable component. This precise passion and commitment led the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to renew Sylvester’s Paul Calabresi Career Development Award for Clinical Oncology (K12), which supports early-career physician-scientists, with a nearly $4 million pledge.

Ashish H. Shah, M.D., looking into a microscope in his laboratory
K12 awardee Ashish H. Shah, M.D., said, “The program provides me with the infrastructure, mentorship and support to facilitate my transition into an independent neurosurgeon-scientist.”

Sylvester has participated in the K12 award program since 2018 to foster the next generation of diverse clinical and translational oncology physician researchers. Each year, through a competitive application process, two or three junior faculty members are chosen for their innovative research approaches and leadership potential in their respective fields.

“The renewal will directly support 12 physician-scientist scholars over the next five years,” said Alan Pollack, M.D., Ph.D., chair and professor of radiation oncology and K12 program principal investigator. “More broadly, the grant has helped to create novel clinical and translational oncology clinical trial educational opportunities for hundreds of trainees and investigators around the world.”

Research Management Course Proves Vital for Grant Renewal

Dr. Pollack led efforts to merit the grant’s renewal with program associate directors Jaime Merchan, M.D., co-leader of the Translational and Clinical Oncology Research Program and director of phase 1 clinical trials program at Sylvester, and Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate director, community outreach and engagement at Sylvester and the John K. and Judy H. Schulte Senior Endowed Chair in Cancer Research.

Headshot of Dr. Pollack
Alan Pollack, M.D., Ph.D.

Over the previous grant cycle, operational lead Vaughn Edelson, M.P.H., M.P.A., supported the program’s executive and curriculum committees as they developed and implemented a comprehensive curriculum for K12 scholars, featuring the annual Design and Management of Cancer Clinical Trials Course.

The course was designed at Sylvester to provide foundational knowledge and strategic guidance for those involved in developing and managing clinical trials. Since its inception in 2019, the course has become an international attraction for faculty and trainees interested in clinical and translational oncology research. The course is also well-attended by nurses, advanced practitioners and coordinators involved in clinical trial research. The 2023 course had more than 800 unique participants from more than 30 countries on five continents.

“The course was a major strength for grant renewal from the NCI,” Dr. Pollack said. “Grant reviewers appreciated the program’s numerous innovative elements, such as a cancer center protocol review observership, modules on entrepreneurship and collaboration with the Sylvester Office of Outreach and Engagement to increase scholar interaction with the unique and diverse Sylvester catchment area.”

The six-week course is free for all participants and offers CME credit for physicians. In addition to filling an unmet need, the course provides an opportunity to present the University of Miami, Sylvester and the K12 program to researchers, health care providers and trainees worldwide. Plans for a more robust virtual platform, with resources and networking opportunities, are underway for the 2024 course and beyond.

Nurturing Faculty Success

While the program’s innovative curriculum was crucial to grant renewal, the key marker of K12’s success is the productivity of its scholars. All the faculty scholars in Sylvester’s first K12 cohort have acquired extramural funding, demonstrated productivity in publications and were promoted to the associate professor level.

Jaime Merchan, M.D.

“Graduating K12 scholars have successfully obtained peer-reviewed grants and published in high-impact journals,” Dr. Merchan said. “From endowed chair positions to federal multimillion-dollar grants, these success stories are a testament to the commitment of the K12 program to the career development of junior physician faculty. Furthermore, the scholars are bringing novel and impactful treatment strategies to our patients in South Florida and beyond.”

The most recent awardee, Ashish Shah, M.D., assistant professor of neurosurgery and the principal investigator in Sylvester’s Section of Virology and Immunotherapy within its Brain Tumor Initiative, studies the interplay between viruses and cancer, especially in brain tumors. His lab recently uncovered the cancer-causing role of a five- to six-million-year-old retrovirus and its sensitivity to anti-retroviral therapy.

“I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to be part of the K12 program,” Dr. Shah said. “The program provides me with the infrastructure, mentorship and support to facilitate my transition into an independent neurosurgeon-scientist. With the support of the K12, we plan to use highly active anti-retroviral drugs in combination with chemotherapy and radiation for the most difficult-to-treat brain tumors.”

Tags: Dr. Ashish Shah, NIH funding, Paul Calabresi Career Development Award for Clinical Oncology K12, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center