New training model supports research careers for doctors in evolutionary medicine

DFG funds programme for "Clinical Researchers in Evolutionary Medicine" at the Faculty of Medicine at Kiel University (CAU) with close to two million Euros.

November 05, 2018

press release of the CAU Kiel

It is a clearly recognized problem that fewer physicians choose a clinical research career path, to the detriment of both the future of medicine and science alike. The Faculty of Medicine at the CAU, the University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH), the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön (MPI-EB) and the Lung Clinic Grosshansdorf are now jointly confronting this trend by creating a new training programme beginning in early 2019 for "Clinician Scientists in Evolutionary Medicine (CSEM)". Goals include the improvement of medical training, and in particular the greater inclusion of principles of evolutionary biology in medical research. The architects of the Kiel programme hope this will help develop sustainable strategies, for example in the fight against treatment resistance in numerous serious diseases. The CSEM programme is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), with close to two million Euros for an initial period of three years, and is aimed at doctors during their specialist training.

“The support from the DFG underlines the aspirations of our university to view medical research more from an evolutionary perspective," emphasised Professor Karin Schwarz, CAU Vice President for research. "We hope to pass on this important perspective to a new generation of doctors, and thereby help to prepare ourselves to tackle the major health challenges, from the antibiotics crisis to the fight against cancer," added Schwarz. The scientific focus areas of the CSEM programme include, for example, conditions such as inflammatory skin diseases, autoimmune diseases arising from a disturbed bacterial colonisation of the body, as well as various forms of cancer. Phenomena such as pathogens evolving resistance to antibiotics are also a primary research focus. "In our new training approach, we want to incorporate evolutionary principles in understanding the origin and manifestation of these various diseases, and the underlying processes responsible," emphasised Professor John Baines, evolutionary biologist at the CAU and future head of the CSEM programme. "It is already evident today that evolutionary medicine has opened up promising perspectives in these areas. We want to continue pursuing these approaches, and systematically incorporate them into medical training," added Baines.

A special feature of the programme is the individual support provided by means of so-called research tandems: the trainees will be supported by a pair of mentors, consisting of a clinical- and basic researcher, during their specialist training. Together they will address specific questions from evolutionary medicine, such as the interaction of host organisms and bacteria, the development of the intestinal microbiome, or the evolution of antibiotic resistance. In this way, the participants can utilise and enhance their individual abilities at the interface between basic research and clinical application, and thereby advance their research careers. In addition, being introduced to evolutionary perspectives helps to entrench this step-by-step in medical studies, which may ultimately lead to improvements in everyday treatment.

As a result of the new initiative, the Faculty of Medicine - with the support of the DFG - is initially creating thirteen new posts, which will ideally be filled by the best ten percent of the doctoral researchers in medicine at the CAU. As part of their training, the aspiring medical specialists will be prepared for a career in clinical research, in one of the scientific areas strongly represented in the Kiel region. The CSEM programme as a whole is embedded in an overarching initiative to strengthen training in clinical research in Kiel. Through this initiative, the Faculty of Medicine and the UKSH together aim to support clinicians, from obtaining their medical doctor title up to a professorship in clinical research. In particular, the initiative should be implemented in the coming years in the framework of the recently-approved Schleswig-Holstein Cluster of Excellence "Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation" (PMI). Thus, the increased support for clinical research as a whole incorporates not only evolutionary medicine, but also the important field of inflammation research, and its resulting strategies for translational precision medicine.

The CAU is particularly suitable as a location for training in evolutionary medicine, as together with its regional partner institutions, it is increasingly becoming a nationwide leader in research in evolutionary biology. For example, the CAU was the first university in Germany to create a department for evolutionary medicine. It is also active in numerous large evolutionary science-oriented research consortia, such as the Cluster of Excellence "Inflammation at Interfaces", the Leibniz ScienceCampus "Evolutionary Medicine of the Lung" and the Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) 1182 "Origin and Function of Metaorganisms".

Evolutionary biology is already firmly present in Master's and doctoral studies at the CAU, including at the Graduate School jointly run with the MPI-EB in Plön, the "International Max Planck Research School for Evolutionary Biology". In addition, with the "Kiel Evolution Center" (KEC), a nationally-unique platform has been established at the CAU, which bundles and networks these various activities and key players, thus strengthening the research location. "The approval of the CSEM programme once again confirms our concept of translational evolutionary research: more and more, awareness is increasing that the application of fundamental evolutionary principles has the potential to deliver decisive impulses, particularly also in medical research and treatment," commented Professor Hinrich Schulenburg of the CAU, KEC spokesperson and one of the project leaders of the CSEM programme, on the positive decision of the DFG.

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Legend: John Baines, Professor of Evolutionary Genomics at the Faculty of Medicine at the CAU, heads the newly-created CSEM programme.
Copyright: Christian Urban, Universität Kiel

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