New multi-million grant provides critical funding for OU and OMRF program.

Christa Devette has set her sights on caring for patients, but also has a strong affinity for research. Now, she is in the midst of an educational marathon at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center that will award her two prestigious degrees at the finish line.
Educating the newest generation of physician-scientists in Oklahoma just got a multi-million dollar boost courtesy of a grant from the Presbyterian Health Foundation.
The new 10-year, $5 million grant provides important funding for the M.D./Ph.D. program, jointly administered by the OU Health Sciences Center and the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
“We are very grateful to the Presbyterian Health Foundation for its continued support of this valuable program. The physician-scientist bridges the worlds of biomedical laboratory research and clinical medicine. By doing so, we believe one can better utilize information and observations from patient practice to define hypotheses for future laboratory investigation that ultimately leads to new and improved treatments. It’s bench to bedside and back again – a cycle that elevates health care overall,” said Jason Sanders, M.D., M.B.A. Sanders is Senior Vice President and Provost at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
Fifteen years ago, PHF awarded the first grant that allowed the M.D./Ph.D. program to begin in its current framework. Students admitted to the program complete their first two years of medical school, taking all preclinical courses required. Next, the students leave the medical school track and begin their doctoral studies in a basic science field, working under a research mentor at either the OU College of Medicine or OMRF.
After completing their doctorate, the students return to medical school to complete their third and fourth years, focused on clinical rotations with patients. They then begin residency as all new physicians do and after the completion of residency, they embark on a research-intensive specialty fellowship.
Because of the lengthy commitment of the M.D./Ph.D. program, students are provided a yearly stipend and tuition assistance. The PHF grant renewal strengthens that commitment to students.
“This program attracts the best and brightest students. Presbyterian Health Foundation believes that our funding of this important medical research program is an investment not only in the student’s future, but in the future health of all Oklahomans,” said Tom R. Gray, III, president of Presbyterian Health Foundation.
Through the partnership between the OU College of Medicine and OMRF, M.D./Ph.D. students benefit from the faculty expertise and facilities of both institutions.
“For decades, OMRF has partnered with the OUHSC to build outstanding science education programs,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “The M.D./Ph.D. program maximizes the strengths of our respective institutions and provides a rich, real-world educational experience for these exceptional students. This generous gift from Presbyterian Health Foundation will help us continue training the physician-scientists who will impact the research world for generations to come.”
Students accepted into the M.D./Ph.D. program are unique individuals dedicated to understanding both the clinical world of a physician treating patients and the research world of a scientist seeking new answers to human disease.
“The PHF grant is critical for maintaining excellence in the M.D./Ph.D. program,” said Ann Louise Olson, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the OU College of Medicine and co-director of the program. “This grant guarantees support for two students per year, allowing us to attract top candidates to our program.”
DeVette is one such student. She is entering her sixth year of the program and well on her way toward making a difference for patients struggling with diseases such as cancer. DeVette gravitated toward the M.D./Ph.D. program because she loves interacting with people, but also because she was drawn to a deeper understanding of human physiology and molecular biology. At the OU College of Medicine, she works in the laboratory of William Hildebrand, Ph.D., a George Lynn Cross Research Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. She also collaborates with researchers at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah.
DeVette’s research identifies targets for therapeutic breast cancer vaccines. In addition, she works with patient-derived xenografts, which are breast carcinomas taken directly from a patient and then utilized in laboratory models, allowing researchers to study a human tumor in its natural environment without harming the patient. It’s work that might someday contribute to the development of a vaccine that could prevent cancer development in high-risk patients, DeVette said.
The M.D./Ph.D. program is a long journey – approximately 15 years of total education — but she feels it is well worth it.
“Patients are complex, unique and rarely fit the exact diagnosis that we spend hours memorizing in medical school,” she said. “I think having the background of a scientist will be extremely helpful in how I approach my clinical work. In the same way, medicine can be particularly useful to my work as a scientist. Having an active clinical practice will inform me of overarching problems in my field and highlight particular knowledge gaps in the diagnosis, treatment or pathology of a disease. With a patient’s best interests in mind, I anticipate that my clinical work will ensure that I ask the right questions and conduct the most translational work in my lab.”