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Antonina Kurtova in Chan’s lab.

Antonina Kurtova packed one suitcase and hopped on the 14-hour flight from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Houston. She knew no one and had no expectations; she came purely for science.

After completing a bachelor’s in biology and a master’s in immunology from St. Petersburg State University in her native country, Kurtova wanted to pursue a science career in the United States. Seven years later, she considers Houston her second home, saying that coming here was one of the best decisions she ever made. For students like Kurtova who live abroad and are passionate about pursuing cancer research in the United States, funding opportunities are sometimes limited.

However, in Texas, funding issues become less of a problem because of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas Training Program. Through this initiative, organizations can facilitate training the next generation of outstanding cancer biology researchers and help ensure that a diverse pool of highly trained scientists is available to meet the state’s and nation’s basic, clinical and translational cancer needs. At Baylor College of Medicine, the program is open to undergraduate, graduate Ph.D., postdoctoral and clinical fellow trainees.

The Training Program is just one element of CPRIT, whose overall goal is to expedite innovation and commercialization in the area of cancer research and to enhance access to evidence-based prevention programs and services throughout the state.

“It allows us, for the first time, to support trainees who were not permanent residents or U.S. citizens,” said Dr. Jeffrey Rosen, the Charles C. Bell Professor in Cell Biology at Baylor and principal investigator on Baylor’s CPRIT training grant. “All the other T32 grants from the National Institutes of Health have been restricted to U.S. citizens. It really allows us more flexibility, plus it allows us more support.”

He notes the limited support for students from overseas from the NIH.

“There are almost no fellowships for overseas students,” said Rosen. “This is a very valuable way of supporting graduate education. I think we have to fund the best and brightest people regardless of where they come from.”

Originally, Baylor College of Medicine applied for 10 summer students, nine pre-doctoral students and five fellows, of whom two were clinical fellows. The committee expanded the number of summer students to 20, who are drawn from the 80 to 90 students participating in Baylor’s Summer Medical and Research Training (SMART) Program, a nine-week employment/educational program for undergraduate students interested in exploring a career in scientific research.

The SMART program pairs undergraduate students with Baylor mentors to conduct biomedical research in a broad range of areas. Students also attend daily seminars that span the spectrum of biomedical research and GRE preparation workshops and participate in various career development activities.

The goal is to increase training in cancer biology across the board—starting with summer students to get them interested in this career.

“We try to use these funds to leverage the federal funding that we have for training. It’s been a very valuable addition to keep these programs going at Baylor,” said Rosen.

“The students we’re choosing are the ones that have already passed their qualifying exams, have very good academic records and are working in a laboratory with a cancer focus. We support both basic and translational cancer research projects,” said Rosen.

Clinical trainees are given the unique opportunity to spend a year out of clinic to be involved in research.

“For a comprehensive cancer center, there has to be an education component. This training program is going to be a key component that, across the cancer center, provides a foundation for this education component,” said Rosen.

Kurtova spent her first two years in Houston as a research assistant at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, working in the area of leukemia, knowing that she eventually wanted to pursue a Ph.D.

Kurtova then applied and was accepted into Baylor’s Translational Biology and Molecular Medicine program, a highly competitive program that takes the approach of training individuals in translational biology and promoting collaborations between clinical and basic science faculty. 

“I read about this program and thought ‘that’s the kind of training I’m interested in,’” she said. She joined the laboratory of Dr. Keith Chan, assistant professor of urology at Baylor, who was studying bladder cancer. It was important for Kurtova’s professional career to find funding. “It was extremely encouraging for me to apply for CPRIT funding because I felt it was probably my only chance to get some funding,” she said. “I still have the acceptance email.”

The funding supported two years of her pre-doctoral training, and she is extremely grateful for the opportunity. She hopes to have some promising data published in the area of bladder cancer soon and will apply for a postdoctoral position next year.

“I truly got what I came for—a very high level of translational research training,” said Kurtova.

“CPRIT provides, for Texas, a really unique support for these kinds of training programs in the context of decreased federal support. I think it’s going to be essential for training the next generation of people involved in breakthroughs for cancer research,” said Rosen. “We’re going to have to keep training people, and we’re going to have to support them. I think that most of the breakthroughs and innovations are going to come from the trainees. They’re the ones who really have the potential to change the paradigms of what we’re doing.

“I think the state showed a lot of foresight when they decided to fund these training grants and even more foresight when they said it didn’t have to be restricted to U.S. citizens or current residents,” said Rosen. •