Pharmacological Sciences Training Grant Meeting: Executive Summary Report

NIGMS Pharmacological Sciences Training Grant Meeting
"What IS Training in the Pharmacological Sciences?"


On August 8 and 9, over 150 scientists met to discuss the title question, "What is training in the pharmacological sciences?" The meeting was organized to address the following concerns regarding the NIGMS pharmacological sciences (PS) training programs:

  • Decline in number of funded programs
  • Loss of programs in schools of pharmacy
  • Loss of program strength in toxicology
  • Narrowing scope of research training offered
  • Changes in medical education landscape
  • Changes in graduate school admissions
  • Concerns about loss of in vivo research skills
  • Concerns about the balance between old and new science
  • Concerns about differentiation from other NIGMS programs

The meeting was attended by almost all of the 26 currently-funded PS training grant program directors; representatives from over 50 other potential applicant institutions; nine members of the NIGMS Biomedical Research Training initial review group; and representatives from the American Society of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, American Physiological Society, American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, American College of Clinical Pharmacy, American Veterinary Medical Association, Society for Toxicology, Safety Pharmacology Society, industry, and government.

The objectives of the meeting were to assure scientific diversity in the research training opportunities offered through the portfolio of PS training programs on a nation wide basis and to define the core knowledge that distinguishes a PS training program from other programs supported by NIGMS. In addition, the meeting provided a venue for current trainers, applicants, potential future applicants, reviewers, and NIH staff to exchange general ideas outside of the confines of the normal application and peer review process.

The meeting was not expected to produce consensus, rather it was designed to raise ideas for discussion and generate suggestions that might be considered by individual programs and adopted or not, when appropriate. Major points made in the presentations and the afternoon breakout sessions are blended in the following topic discussions.

What is core training in the pharmacological sciences that makes it a distinct NIGMS program?
There was consensus that pharmacology is the central discipline of the PS training programs and that the core of pharmacology is pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics, where both are broadly defined to include molecular mechanisms as well as whole organism data.

What is state of the art training and how is it accomplished?
What is new is driven by the research activity of the faculty members. Team teaching, core facilities, journal clubs and seminars, may be effective ways to introduce new technology. Incorporation of genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics, and other new areas of science is critical.

What is the proper balance between molecular/cellular and systems/integrative pharmacology?
The need for systems and integrative training in pharmacology was repeatedly mentioned by speakers from academia, industry and the FDA. Although the term can be defined in other ways, it is generally taken to mean experience with in vivo animal research, but NOT simply in vivo technical skills. Generally, there was agreement that both cellular/molecular and systems/integrative training were desirable, but there is considerable range of opinion regarding the balance. Reasons for the decline of in vivo research and concerns about the consequences were discussed. Efforts to address this decline, including this meeting, were considered. The major determinant of future training will be the hiring patterns of academic institutions and the ability of faculty to obtain research funding for in vivo studies. Although additional suggestions were made, a modest change of focus of some of the currently funded programs or the funding of new programs with a strength in systems and integrative pharmacology could have a substantial and immediate impact.

What can be done to increase the scientific diversity of training available to PS students?
This question arose from the narrowing of funded PS training programs over the past few years with both more chemically-oriented and more in vivo-oriented programs failing in their competing continuations. The desirability that programs should be interdisciplinary was reinforced. Inclusion of faculty and students from schools of pharmacy, schools of veterinary medicine, and schools of public health was encouraged. Inclusion of drug relevant toxicology training was also suggested. Diversity within the overall portfolio should arise naturally from the differing strengths of various institutions. However, the programs will only reflect that diversity if they reach out to include the best available at their institutions. In addition to PhD and MD/PhD student pools, the consideration of PharmD and DVM graduates or dual degree students was suggested as a way to increase scientific diversity and increase the student pool. A further thought on increasing the training pool for the pharmacological sciences would be the development of additional undergraduate programs and courses in pharmacology.

Would incorporation of a clinical experience within the PS graduate program be helpful?
A clinical orientation course or rotation would produce graduates with a greater appreciation for the conduct of clinical research and better understanding of the relationship between basic science and clinical science. But it would not produce translational/clinical researchers. A number of options for increasing research training of MD, PharmD, DVM or other professional degree graduates and dual degree candidates were suggested. PhD training of these groups can be supported by the PS training grants now in place. However, impediments to recruitment include low stipend levels, debt burden, long training times, and competition with the option of professional practice.

Would incorporation of an industrial experience within PS programs be helpful?
Industrial experiences, particularly as a substitute for one of the academic rotations, would be a useful and generally feasible option. However, they should not be mandated for all students or programs. Performance of significant parts of the thesis research within industry may be problematic.

How have changes in medical education affected graduate education and vice versa?
The shift in medical education from discipline-based instruction to organ-based instruction has resulted in elimination of medical physiology and pharmacology courses at many institutions. Most PS training programs have responded by creating a separate principles of pharmacology course for their graduate students. Some have had difficulty providing adequate physiology background training. Elimination of physiology and pharmacology labs has eliminated opportunities for hands-on in vivo experiences as well as teaching experiences for many graduate students. Other venues for gaining those experiences need to be developed. Loss of graduate exposure to medical pharmacology may affect medical education in the future, but most of the program directors present were not overly concerned.

How have changes in graduate recruitment affected PS training programs?
Many institutions have shifted to an umbrella first year admissions program, whereby students are recruited to the institution as a whole. Students do not select their home departments or training programs until the second year. In some cases, this transition has decreased enrollment into PS training programs. It is important to be sure such interdisciplinary pools contain sufficient numbers of potential PS students. In some cases, parallel direct recruiting mechanisms have been implemented. Careful integration of groups of students entering by different paths is needed. Compromises in the first year umbrella program core curriculum have delayed, in some cases, the beginning of instruction in pharmacology. But in others, the first year core was felt to facilitate later disciplinary instruction. The homogenization of first year students has led to some uncertainty about the numbers of students and the distinctiveness of their training in some PS training programs. Programs that have lost sight of the core PS training objectives, have failed in their competing continuations. However, other new programs have arisen, wherein the core training discussed above has been combined in novel ways with chemical biology, radiological imaging, or genetics & bioinformatics, for example, to produce unique PS training programs.

What is good training in the pharmacological sciences?
From the review standpoint, good training in the pharmacological sciences is not much different from good training in any of the NIGMS supported program areas. Programs differ in detail, but have many features in common. Key issues concern administration of the program, selection of faculty, recruitment and appointment of students, mentoring and monitoring, suitability of the curriculum, and programmatic activities. PS program-specific issues are the inclusion of physiology, breadth of training in pharmacology, number of required courses, and time required for coursework. In the final analysis, the quality of the students upon completion of their training is the most important measure of good training.

What are the outcomes of training in the pharmacological sciences?
Most trainees complete their PhD training. Most graduates go on to postdocs with those distributed between academia (70%), industry (18%), and government (12%). Most achieve permanent positions in industry (37%) with fewer in academia (20%), medicine (22%), or non-traditional careers (11%). Only a few (10%) have left science altogether. Academia, industry, and recent trainees were consistent in what they valued most in training. These included basic physiology, pharmacokinetics, and pharmacodynamics; but more importantly, general skills, such as problem solving, ability to communicate, and ability to collaborate. Specific technical skills and specific subject area knowledge was considered less important.

Peter C. Preusch, Ph.D.
Program Director, Pharmacological Sciences Training Grant Program
Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry Division
National Institute of General Medical Sciences