Integrating Research and Clinical Care

New Advanced Integrated Science Courses at HMS are changing the way faculty are integrating basic-science teaching with clinical care

michael and stephanie dougan

Michael Dougan (left) and Stephanie Dougan. Image: John Soares

Could early exposure to peanuts possibly prevent peanut allergies in high-risk infants? In a new Harvard Medical School immunology course, two groups of third-year students debated the pros and cons of the question this year.

“This course took us to the edge of what we know in the field of immunology again and again. Our course directors pushed us to generate our own hypotheses, envision our own theories and question existing paradigms. There is so much still to discover,” said Cannon Society student Andrew Foley. “And how exciting is that?”

The immunology course is among eight new advanced integrated science courses (AISCs) introduced for the 2017–18 academic year, designed to help students evaluate new research advances and incorporate them into their clinical decision making as physicians. In the Pathways curriculum, two AISCs are now required for the MD degree.

“I think the students really had their eyes opened through these courses,” said Stephanie Dougan, assistant professor of microbiology and immunobiology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and one of the two teachers leading the immunology course. “Whenever trial data come out, you have to make a decision about how safe you feel extrapolating that to your patient.”

All AISCs are team taught by faculty drawn from HMS basic science departments and HMS-affiliated hospitals. With 19 students enrolled, the immunology course met five times a week for four weeks—three days in the classroom, two days in hospital settings—and was co-taught by Dougan’s husband, Michael Dougan, an instructor in medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“The major value for people who are going to become practicing doctors is to see how fundamental concepts in basic science apply to clinical medicine,” said Michael Dougan. “If you don’t understand where these things come from, it’s hard to understand the new medicines you’re working with.”

“The AISCs are one of the most exciting things happening at HMS because students are at a new developmental point in their education,” said Dean for Medical Education Edward Hundert, the Daniel D. Federman, M.D. Professor in Residence of Global Health and Social Medicine and Medical Education. “They’ve learned quite a bit of medicine through their time on the wards. Now they are back in the classroom, guided by basic science faculty and clinician-scientists, exploring the boundaries between the known and the unknown in biomedicine.”

Developed by basic science and clinical faculty from across the School, the eight AISCs offered during the students’ third and fourth years cover cancer biology, regenerative medicine, neurobiology, translational pharmacology, computationally enabled medicine, human genetics, immunology, and microbiology and infectious diseases. Next year’s courses will include translational biomedical engineering, global health delivery science, and metabolism, nutrition and lifestyle medicine.

“Physicians have to incorporate new advances into their clinical care,” said one of the lead faculty AISC developers, John Flanagan, professor of cell biology. “But they also must provide leadership in terms of directing research toward the most pressing clinical problems and unmet needs.”