Op-Ed: In Our Search for a Cure for Lymphoma, Support for Early Career Scientists is Crucial

By: Ann LaCasce, MD and Sonali M. Smith, MD

The last decade has seen a number of exciting developments in lymphoma research, with new therapies, improved treatment strategies, and a more developed understanding of lymphoma biology improving patient treatment and outcomes across a number of lymphoma subtypes.  Though we are poised for even more exciting developments in the next decade, a crucial portion of that future research will be done by researchers and clinical scientists just now beginning their careers.  The Lymphoma Research Foundation’s support for these early career scientists in the form of research grants and mentoring programs, is vital to the success not just of the individual scientists, but to the future of lymphoma research as a field.

As early career clinical scientists reach the end of their fellowship training and seek their first faculty positions, they often find themselves at a crucial crossroads.  Heavy clinical loads and other time period restrictions can make it difficult to find adequate time for medical research.  Studies of early career medical school graduates show that even those with a strong interest in research may end up leaving academia and other research institutions due to a lack of support, both in terms of funding and time.  Early career grants, like those supported by the Lymphoma Research Foundation, provide both salary support and protected research time at this vulnerable point in a researchers career.

Mentoring programs, like the LRF’s Lymphoma Clinical Research Mentoring Program (LCRMP), also help retain clinical scientists in medical research.  These programs are particularly helpful for retention of women and underrepresented minorities, and yet studies suggest a persistent gender gap when it comes to participation in clinical scientist training programs.  As Co-Chairs of the 2017 LCRMP Workshop, we are proud that the LRF LCRMP has bucked this trend; 53 percent of LRF Scholars in the four years of the program have been women, including five of six participants this year.  Retention of a diverse workforce that reflects the general population is also essential to ensuring the needs of all patients are considered in the development of clinical trials and other research projects.

Though the number of physicians in the United States has nearly doubled since 1980, the number of U.S. physicians for whom research is the primary activity has declined from 3.6 percent in 1982 to 1.6 percent in 2011.  Correlation has also been found between the percentages of graduating medical students with strong interest in a research career and periods of rapid increases in NIH appropriations; in the current environment for federal funding, our best defense against losing a generation of potential researchers is to support as many early career scientists as possible through LRF and other private foundations.

Eight former recipients of LRF early career grants–including Dr. LaCasce, who received a Clinical Investigator Career Development Award in 2005–now sits on LRF’s Scientific Advisory Board, a group made up of leaders in the field.  Supporting today’s early career researchers develops tomorrow’s lymphoma research leaders, and our continued progress towards a cure for this disease.

Ann LaCasce, MD is Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Dana-Farber/Partners CancerCare Hematology-Medical Oncology Fellowship Program.  Sonali M. Smith, MD is Professor of Medicine and Director of the Lymphoma Program at the University of Chicago.  Both are Co-Chairs of the 2017 LRF Lymphoma Clinical Research Mentoring Program (LCRMP) and members of the LRF Scientific Advisory Board.