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Expanding Paths to Innovation: Building on 25 Years of Supporting Physician Scientists

For the last 25 years, the Doris Duke Foundation has supported physician scientists because we believe that they are critical to solving some of the world’s most complex medical challenges. To mark this occasion, we convened all past recipients of the Clinical Scientist Development Award to celebrate their achievements and invited attendees to join us in reflecting on the future of innovation in medicine.  

Photo credit: Dom McGee, productionglue.

“From Legacy to Future: Physician Scientists and the Next Frontier of Innovation in Medicine” invited Doris Duke Foundation advisors, partners and trustees for a day of celebration of past achievements and broadening our collective horizons to the opportunities available as the nature of innovation changes in the present and future.   

Thought leaders in academia, industry and venture capital discussed advances in computing, the importance of and difficulties in implementing effective interventions, increasing collaborations between academia and industry, and perennial pressures inherent in career advancement. They also explored the ways in which clinical innovation is supported, incentivized and delivered that uncover gaps between the potential and the reality of what the biomedical research enterprise has delivered to support the well-being of people and the planet for a more creative, equitable and sustainable future. This gap is evident in the decreasing lifespan of the population of the United States, in the burnout documented among healthcare professionals and in the countless lives lost in the COVID-19 pandemic after the arrival of historically effective vaccines. 

The Doris Duke Foundation believes that it’s time to strengthen new funding pathways for visionary physician scientists to pursue every avenue of research that will save and improve lives. This is anchored in the conviction that to impact clinical outcomes, we need innovation on many fronts, the dedication of many to mentoring and the cultivation of promising ideas.

“We are inviting you, exhorting you, to be the Vannevar Bushes of today. To look up and out over the long arc of time, to ask what kind of science we need—not just for today, but for tomorrow. To recognize that shifting epochal priorities are not a symptom of human fallibility and fickleness but a symbol of science’s capacity for progress and improvement.” - Sam Gill, President and CEO of the Doris Duke Foundation

Sam Gill. Photo credit: Dom McGee, production glue.

During the evening celebration, 25 previous Clinical Scientist Development Award recipients were honored with the Paragon Award for Research Excellence, a one-time recognition for those who have significantly contributed to their field of study; driven impactful developments in disease diagnosis, treatment or prevention; or advanced innovative improvements to clinical care or healthcare delivery. A full list of awardees can be found here. 

Paragon Award for Research Excellence. Photo credit: Dom McGee, productionglue.

As we look back on this convening, we are struck by a few key takeaways: 

  • Traditional biomedical research funding has been responsible for the development of many discoveries in health, such as the COVID-19 vaccine and gene therapies.  
  • Leaders in health will be called on to do more, be more and lead the sector toward bold, new innovations. 
    • “What we really need to focus on… is having all of us advocate for the fact that there is an imperative, an opportunity, and an obligation to focus on now the translational side, not to the exclusion of basic research.” - Christopher Austin, M.D., founding director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) and current CEO-Partner at Flagship Pioneering and CEO of Vesalius Therapeutics
  • To improve health care delivery and disease prevention, we need to broaden the paths to innovation.
    • “If we are going to make differences in the decreases in life expectancy that are largely due to chronic diseases, we have a responsibility to understand how we’re going to get that to access. Because access is a massive, massive challenge... I think we have to be more intentional to recognize what the population benefit will be to our new interventions.” - Rochelle Walensky, M.D., MPH, 19th Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    • “We think of life expectancy loss, and they are tragic, associated with opioids, firearms or motor vehicle accidents, but if you look at the data, the life expectancy loss due to chronic diseases are 2.5x all of those combined. It really is the chronic diseases we have to tackle, and that means access.” - Rochelle Walensky, M.D., MPH, 19th Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

(L to R) Deborah Persaud, M.D.; Rochelle Walensky, M.D., MPH; Anthony Fauci, M.D. Photo credit: Dom McGee, productionglue.

  • Academic institutions need to take an active role in facilitating the research opportunities that will lead to the greatest impact. 
    • “We can bring people together from all parts of a university or a school to approach a problem in an interdisciplinary way from different perspectives.- Nancy Brown, M.D., Jean and David W. Wallace Dean of the Yale School of Medicine and C.N.H. Long Professor of Internal Medicine
    • I think institutions can do a lot more to play a proactive role in bringing both external and commercial stakeholders, and this is where a gap has existed, into the academic realm.” - Mira Chaurushiya, Ph.D., Managing Director, Westlake Village Biopartners

Through a quarter century of supporting physician scientists, the Doris Duke Foundation has demonstrated that early-career physician scientists have a wealth of innovative ideas. The current system of funding prioritizes research dedicated to understanding the mechanism of disease, which is critical. But this system can also limit early-career scientists from pursuing other innovative ideas with high potential to improve human health, in favor of research that may more readily harness existing paths of grant support. We want to build pathways for funding and support that allow physician scientists to pursue a wider range of research, so all innovative ideas can be pursued.  

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