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Stanford Medicine launches master’s program in translational research

A new Stanford School of Medicine master’s program trains students in taking basic science research findings from the lab to patient care.

- By Emily Moskal

Nirk Quispe Calla

Nirk Quispe Calla, MD, develops tumors by injecting cancer cells into mice, allowing researchers to study immune responses and novel therapies at the Stanford Cancer Institute.

But the physician-scientist, who graduated from the National University of San Agustin in Arequipa, Peru, wanted to see his work help patients.

He started looking into translational research, or research that converts basic science discoveries into findings that can be directly applied to patients.

“There is always a caveat when you’re extrapolating what is found in mice to what can be done in humans,” Quispe Calla said. “With translational research, the goal is to translate novel ideas found at the bench or in mouse models to human research.”

He enrolled in a new master’s program at the Stanford School of Medicine, called the Master of Science in Translational Research and Applied Medicine, or M-TRAM. The program, the first of its kind on the West Coast, launched in September with a cohort of six students.

“The program fills the unmet need of helping scientists in basic and clinical sciences take their ideas from the laboratory or the clinic and bring them into application for the benefit of human patients,” said Dean Felsher, MD, PhD, a professor of oncology and the faculty director of the new program.

Since 2011,  Felsher and Joanna Liliental, PhD, executive director of the program, have mentored hundreds — primarily fellows, some junior faculty and occasionally students — in moving research findings into the clinic. One project that Felsher and Liliental helped guide involved biomarkers — biological measurements that can be indicative of a disease or other condition — for liver cancer and tumor progression. They mentored translational researchers as they conducted studies to determine what those biomarkers mean for early detection, prognosis and treatment options.

“The M-TRAM graduate program grew out of something that had already very much been a part of the fabric of the Stanford School of Medicine for a decade,” Felsher said.

A launchpad

Felsher said students don’t need 20 years of training to apply state-of-the-art research tools to clinically relevant areas of investigation and make a difference. His goal is to expedite the process for those not wanting to pursue an MD and PhD.

Laura Remillard, the program manager, calls it a launchpad — students can jump off in any direction, whether that’s pursuing a higher degree or taking a job at a biomedical firm.

The inaugural M-TRAM class, with their advisors. They're holding tomatoes grown by one of the students.
Joanna Liliental

The program, which accepts students from a variety of backgrounds, combines rigorous lectures with clinical science and laboratory experience at Stanford Medicine and at a biotech or pharmaceutical companies. Classes focus on drug discovery and development, clinical trials and clinical research, and study design and analysis; there’s also an applied medicine course with a focus on immunotherapy, gene therapy, vaccines and biomarkers.

“M-TRAM trains the next generation of professionals who are capable of translating new scientific discoveries into practical solutions that improve and save lives,” Liliental said. “We equip our students with the tools to navigate the complexities of translational research design and methodology.”

The centerpiece of M-TRAM studies is a yearlong capstone project that allows students to use Stanford Medicine or biotech industry resources to help develop novel therapeutic, diagnostic or health preventive tools. Quispe Calla will be working in the lab of Ramasamy Paulmurugan, PhD, a professor of radiology, to develop a way to deliver dendritic cell vaccine approaches against cancers. The dendritic cells present foreign bodies to T cells, which activate the immune system.

A major point of the program — and the research project — is to breach silos between medical researchers, engineers and chemists by conducting cross-disciplinary research.

“We break down those barriers, because most innovation translation occurs across disciplines,” Felsher said.

A step apart

About 30 faculty are involved in some capacity in the program — some teaching, others in an advisory role. The program also has an external advisory board composed of individuals in biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.

In the future, the team hopes to offer a certificate program for Stanford Medicine’s large visiting scholar cohorts, as well as expand the master’s program to include customizable tracks that students choose based on their interests and career aspirations.

“We think this can be truly an exemplary program, another positive footprint at Stanford,” Felsher said.

After completing the program, Quispe Calla expects to transition to preclinical or clinical research and hopes to directly help patients.

“I believe that M-TRAM training will prepare me as a translational research scientist, and I hope to use these skills to conduct early clinical studies that showed promising results for better diagnosis, therapy or cancer prevention,” he said.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit http://mednews.stanford.edu.

2023 ISSUE 1

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