As a fellow in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Bradley Richmond, M.D., saw a lot of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an inflammatory lung disease caused most often by long-term exposure to cigarette smoke.
Treatment is limited and there is no cure. COPD is the third-leading cause of death in the United States after cardiovascular disease and cancer. That’s why, in 2013, Richmond decided to go back to school — to get his Ph.D.
“This all goes back to patients in the end,” said Richmond, an instructor in the Department of Medicine who earlier this month earned his doctorate in Cell and Developmental Biology. “For me, it’s an obligation to try to do what I can in a small way to improve patient outcomes.”
Richmond, 35, is the first enrollee and the first to graduate from the Physician Science Doctoral Program (PSDP), a joint effort of the School of Medicine and Graduate School aimed at resident physicians or fellows near the end of their clinical training who want to earn a Ph.D.
Launched in 2014, the PSDP is distinct from the 18-year-old Vanderbilt Physician-Scientist Training Program, which combines clinical and research training via the American Board of Internal Medicine Research Pathway, in that the PSDP leads directly to a Ph.D. in the basic sciences within three to four years.
Timing is important. As soon as participants complete their clinical fellowship training, their research training begins, said Roy Zent, M.D., Ph.D., the Thomas F. Frist Professor of Medicine and vice chair for Research in the department, who conceived and directs the PSDP program.
Roger Chalkley, D.Phil., senior associate dean for Biomedical Research Education and Training in the School of Medicine, was instrumental getting the program off the ground, Zent said, as was Richard Hoover, Ph.D., associate dean of the Graduate School, and the basic science department chairs.
After earning his medical degree at the University of Louisville, Richmond came to Vanderbilt for his internal medicine residency, and then spent a year studying sarcoidosis pathology in the laboratory of Wonder Drake, M.D., associate professor of Medicine, before beginning his fellowship.
In 2013, Richmond joined the lab of Timothy Blackwell, M.D., the Ralph and Lulu Owen Professor of Medicine, director of the Division of Allergy, Pulmonary and Critical Care, and an expert on the pathogenic effects of chronic lung inflammation.
Richmond’s dissertation project focused on the role that immune responses in the mucosal lining of the lung might play in the development of COPD. Two years later, he and his colleagues identified specific alterations in the mucosal immune system in mice that allow airway bacteria to invade deeper into the lung.
Their findings, published last year in the journal Nature Communications, may explain why COPD continues to progress in some patients, even after they stop smoking, and could lead to new, more effective treatments for the disease.
Richmond’s research has been supported in part by a K12 research career development award from the National Institutes of Health. The Ph.D. puts him in a stronger position to compete successfully for research funding and open his own lab, Zent said.
Blackwell agreed. “I hope this (program) prepares people to sustain their research effort in academic medicine,” he said.