MSK Program Prepares Clinicians for Careers in Translational Cancer Research

pancreatic surgeon and K12 alum Vinod Balachandran

In the past 30 years, major strides have been made in translational medicine — the bridge that shepherds research findings from the lab to clinical practice. Researchers, physicians, and other specialists at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) have played a major role in these successes, as they work together with the common goal of using their discoveries to create new treatments for people with cancer.

Specialized training and key resources such as government and philanthropic funding, expert mentorship, cutting-edge laboratories, and protected research time are critical to accelerate these bench-to-bedside achievements. With this in mind, MSK launched its K12 Clinical Translational Research Training Program in 2015 to provide participants with these resources and prepare them for careers in translational cancer research.

“The long-term goal of this program is to train physicians to lead patient-oriented translational research that will yield important discoveries and ultimately improve cancer care and cancer therapy,” explains Omar Abdel-Wahab, Director of the MSK Center for Hematologic Malignancies and Co-Director of the K12 program.

Eligibility for MSK’s Translational Research Program

The K12 program is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Paul Calabresi Career Development Award for Clinical Oncology and receives matching support from MSK. This enables the program to foster a total of four scholars each year, making MSK’s K12 program larger than most around the country.

The eligibility requirements are uniquely multidisciplinary: Anyone with an MD, MD/PhD, or DO from any service across MSK (or external applicants who have established relationships with proposed mentors from any MSK department) is eligible to apply. Current scholars include medical, surgical, and radiation oncologists, pathologists, and radiologists. The program’s faculty members also represent a diversity of laboratory and clinical specialties at MSK.

“More important than our size and institutional commitment to the program is that we hire people who want this type of nurturing, mentoring, and higher-level training to help them succeed in this pipeline of success,” says Simon Powell, Chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at MSK and Co-Director of the K12 program.

Scholars are guaranteed a faculty position at MSK upon completion of the three-year program — an important draw for clinically qualified MDs who are nearing the completion of their fellowship training and on the cusp of becoming junior faculty members. In fact, the program has helped jump-start the careers of all 14 of its graduates to date, each of whom has developed either an independent clinical or lab-based research career at MSK.

“K12 scholars are generating high-quality research and publications, securing independent research grants, and contributing to the field of oncology at MSK and beyond. These are definitive markers of the program’s success,” says Thomas Magaldi, Assistant Dean of the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSK).

Since the K12 program was first funded in 2015, MSK has enrolled 26 scholars. They have published 123 papers, led more than 30 clinical trials, and received more than 20 peer-reviewed research grants from federal agencies, professional societies, and foundations.

Protected Research Time and Expert Mentorship

MSK’s K12 program protects 70% to 80% of the scholars’ time (50% for surgeons) to allow them to focus on research early in their careers, when most are heavily burdened by patient care responsibilities. “Research takes time, so that is really valuable and another point that sets us apart from other K12 programs,” notes Dr. Abdel-Wahab.

Vinod Balachandran

Vinod Balachandran

This particularly benefits busy surgeons, whose packed schedules tend to leave little, if any, time for research. “MSK’s K12 program offers scholars protected research time and support to gain, sharpen, and hone the additional skills that they need to become independent physician-scientists,” says pancreatic surgeon and K12 alum Vinod Balachandran. “For surgeon-scientists like myself, this is essential at the beginning of their career.”

During his residency at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, Dr. Balachandran received formal research training in an MSK lab of a surgeon-scientist conducting laboratory-based translational research. He was also fortunate to establish mentor relationships with physician-scientists who were conducting pioneering translational work in immunology. “They showcased the power that physician-scientists had: the ability to use science to make a medicine and impact a patient’s life. That hooked me,” recalls Dr. Balachandran.

After completing his residency, Dr. Balachandran returned to MSK as a surgical fellow and remained on staff, eager to work as a surgeon-scientist focused on immunotherapy for people with pancreatic cancer, a disease that kills 90% of patients despite existing treatments. Upon enrolling in the K12 program, he was mentored by some of the faculty who worked with him during his research training.

“Having physician-scientists who have been so generous with their wisdom, support, and mentorship has had a profound impact on me and influenced my career choices,” says Dr. Balachandran.

The K12 program provided the salary support and protected time that he needed to conduct research that led to the only clinical trial to test mRNA vaccines for people with pancreatic cancer. The preliminary findings of his phase 1 study are encouraging, and his research continues.

A Master of Science in Clinical and Translational Cancer Research

K12 scholars who do not already have a PhD have the opportunity to receive a Master of Science in Clinical and Translational Cancer Research degree through GSK. The accredited master’s program was established in 2020 and centers around the K12 curriculum.

“The curriculum exposes students to basic cancer biology and biostatistics as well as trial design,” says Dr. Magaldi. “This equips our graduates with the ability to write better clinical trials that are informed by training on both sides of the translational spectrum.”

Simone Krebs

Simone Krebs

For nuclear medicine physician-scientist Simone Krebs, being able to take courses that would supplement her research training was a key factor that led her to apply for the K12 program — which Dr. Krebs says significantly impacted her career path. After finishing medical school at the University of Freiburg in Germany, she completed her postdoctoral research training at the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Wanting to return to patient care, she got the chance to join MSK, where she completed her residency in nuclear medicine and then joined the K12 program.

“The K12 program was instrumental in putting me in the best possible position to pursue my academic career, receive training in translational and clinical research, lead my own lab, and secure further funding to support my research,” explains Dr. Krebs. Her work focuses on the development of molecular imaging and treatment approaches for tumors as well as tracking strategies for monitoring the effects of CAR T cell therapy.

Dr. Krebs’ K12 mentors included physician-scientists specializing in molecular pharmacology, nuclear medicine, immunotherapy, and molecular imaging and therapeutics. She says they were invaluable to her career development in translational medicine: “I am extremely grateful that I got the opportunity to join the program and for the support I received from my mentors who provided me with the guidance, support, lab space, and state-of-the-art tools I needed to be in the position I am today.”

Applications for 2023 are open now with a deadline in early January. The start date for those selected is September 2023.