Two students from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) are among only 66 in the world receiving a fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) this year. Second-year medical students Jacob Basham and Terrence Terrell Jones have earned the award for a second consecutive year, which is even rarer.
Through the fellowship, Basham works as a researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in gene therapy for acute myeloid leukemia, while Jones works at the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV in Durban, South Africa.
The HHMI Medical Research Fellows Program is a $3 million annual initiative to develop the next generation of physician-scientists, allowing fellows to work in a laboratory on a research project of their own design.
Basham, originally from Portland, Tennessee, a small town near Nashville, already has spent one year working with disease-fighting T-cells at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “Immunology fascinated me,” he said.
“This is the most exciting thing imaginable, if you ask me,” Basham said. “We are genetically engineering T-cells to be able to recognize the cancer known as acute myeloid leukemia, or AML for short. Already, there have been some clinical trials in the United States using this sort of therapy on various blood cancers, but none of them have been with AML. So we’re hoping to get the pre-clinical data gathered to warrant a clinical trial in this cancer.
“Seeing what current cancer treatments do to people is just absolutely devastating,” Basham continued. “We’ve all seen it – the radiation and chemotherapy. There’s just got to be a better, more efficacious way. That’s why we’re trying to teach the immune system to fight cancer. It’s already your best defense. You’ve just got to gear it up sometimes.”
Jones is from Magee, Mississippi, a town about 20 minutes south of Jackson, Mississippi. He earned his undergraduate degree in biochemistry from the University of Mississippi. Jones is doing his fellowship on the other side of the world.
The KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV is an independent research institute established through a collaboration between the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. His research is concentrated on strains of tuberculosis that have become resistant to multiple drugs.
Durban is the largest city in the KwaZulu-Natal province. Jones called the region “the epicenter for extreme drug-resistant tuberculosis in the whole world.” All too often, he said, tuberculosis in South Africa occurs as a co-infection with HIV, which is also quite common there.
Like all HHMI fellows, Basham and Jones designed their own research projects. “I didn’t go to my boss and say, ‘Give me something to do,’ ” Basham said. “All he said was, ‘Here’s what were working on the lab, and you figure out something you would want to do.’ ”
David J. Asai, senior director in science education at HHMI, said, “The HHMI Med Fellows Program is one of the few in the nation that enables MD and DVM students to engage in very high-quality research for an entire year. This engagement is perhaps the best way for talented students at this stage in their training to understand the powerful opportunity that emerges at the intersection of medicine and laboratory research.”
HHMI received 195 applications for this year’s program, up from 187 in the previous year. Each medical fellow receives $41,000 in grant support; fellows are eligible to apply for a second year. Only 13 fellows from the 2015 class will be supported by HHMI for an additional year.
Jones’ work is focused on collecting lung samples from tuberculosis patients, particularly those who acquired the disease in vitro.
“We’re doing bench work,” he said. “We’re building up a bank of samples for the future.” The idea, he said, is to lay a foundation that eventually will have translational value, and result in new drug therapies.
There is a pressing need for more and better tuberculosis drugs, Jones said. He pointed to the fact that in 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a new drug for tuberculosis called bedaquiline. However, that was only the first new drug for treating the disease in 40 years.
“We need drugs that only target drug-resistant tuberculosis, not the host,” he said.
Both Basham and Jones are inspired by the example of the physician-scientist exemplified by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and plan to combine research with clinical work.
“In the long term, I’d like eventually to go translational research,” Jones said. “I’d like to own my own laboratory as well as work in a clinic on the side.”
They will participate in the fellowship for another year, then return to UTHSC for two more years to finish their MD degrees. They then probably will have to complete three years of residency, and another three to four years of specialization – 10 more years of preparation and training.
“I know that to someone else it could seem like such a drag, but I think I’m so lucky,” Basham said. “I get to learn about things that are exciting, and to see patients. Maybe I’m not engineering T-cells for patients I see. Maybe I’m just seeing runny noses and broken arms. It’s all part of learning to be a doctor. “You’ve got to do all that stuff first before anyone’s going to give you an opportunity to open a lab and start running clinical trials on diseases. It’s a rite of passage.”