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Mayo Clinic’s focus on team science encourages career growth and lifelong support as new investigators become independent researchers.

This may come as a surprise, but the tubes that carry oxygen-rich blood to the heart, called coronary arteries, are distressingly tiny.

Heart, showing a blocked coronary artery

“Coronary arteries are about three to four millimeters in diameter,” says Brandon Tefft, Ph.D., a research associate focused on regenerative medicine at Mayo Clinic. That’s about the width of a match head.

Coronary Artery Disease
The narrowing or hardening of these arteries is the most common form of heart disease according to the National Institutes of Health. While a shift in life choices and medication are the usual first therapies, doctors can turn to medical devices to restore or improve blood flow to the heart.

Dr. Tefft is a biomedical engineer working on the next generation of cardiovascular medical devices. Six years ago he started at Mayo working with Robert Simari, M.D., and Amir Lerman, M.D., an interventional cardiologist, on a project to create dynamic, living heart valves.

Now, Dr. Tefft is preparing to launch his own research project. And he’s doing it thanks to his Mayo mentors, benefactor funding and federal grants, all of which help trainee investigators establish independent research projects.

A Magnetic Solution
Before Dr. Tefft arrived at Mayo, Gurpreet Sandhu, M.D., Ph.D., an interventional cardiologist, and biomedical engineer Dan Dragomir-Daescu, Ph.D., came up with the concept of a magnetic stent to address the problem of blood clots forming on regular stents.

They theorized that magnetic stents could be used to attract magnetically-labeled cells. By quickly coating the stent with a layer of the body’s cells they hoped the vessel would heal faster and have fewer complications, including blood clot formation.

Now, with a new research award from the National Institutes of Health to complement Dr. Tefft’s benefactor-funded Mayo Clinic Career Development Award in Cardiovascular Disease Research Honoring Dr. Earl H. Wood, Dr. Tefft is putting a new spin on the concept.

He is working with nanoparticles and nanofibers to develop next-generation magnetic grafts for blood vessels (like those tiny coronary arteries) and heart valves that will hopefully free patients from the need for anticoagulation medication and improve outcomes.

Career Acceleration: Funding Helps
“It’s extremely difficult to launch a research career,” says Dr. Lerman, Dr. Tefft’s primary mentor. “The age of people getting their first NIH or federal award is increasing every year so this first gap year between finishing training and getting the first award is crucial.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, the average age of first time awardees has risen from 35 in 1970 to roughly 45 last year. At that pressure point, Dr. Lerman says some researchers pause and ask themselves if they are really committed to launching a research career with a one-in-ten chance of getting funding.

“If somebody really is showing commitment by itself that’s already a sign of success,” he says, and adds that Mayo has several initiatives and programs to help in addition to promoting outside opportunities like the NIH grant Dr. Tefft received.

Dr. Tefft participated in a training grant, called the NIH-T32 Institutional National Research Service Award which is administered by Andre Terzic, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine. This type of grant funds the research trainee as he or she explores new ideas, and helps the research workforce evolve to meet current and future needs of the field.

And that is exactly what the grant did for Dr. Tefft, as he worked with Drs. Lerman, Sandhu, and Dragomir-Daescu.

“I continued to work on my current projects, but the T32 award made it easier to start working on new projects or spend time applying for additional grants,” says Dr. Tefft. “It was key for me and it gave me opportunities to explore new ideas and apply for the K99/R00.”

The K99/R00 grant, called the Pathway to Independence Award, is an NIH grant that funds mentored research for one to two years and then independent research for up to three years. But it’s not an easy grant to get.

“It would have been impossible to secure this award without a tremendous amount of support,” says Dr. Tefft.

Most specifically, he says, from his mentors.

But Mentors Make the Difference
“I have been a mentor for more than 20 years,” says Dr. Lerman. “I was on a similar training grant when I started my career.”

At Mayo, mentorship is the mortar that holds scientific teams together. Within Dr. Lerman’s department, several clinician investigators have also started their career on the grant and then became mentors themselves. It’s a role not to be taken lightly.

“You commit yourself to the individual’s career and success and actually mentorship never stops,” says Dr. Lerman. “I still call my mentor. You can leave the lab, you can initiate your own lab but you will always feel comfortable calling your mentor for questions.”

On the K99/R00 grant a trainee’s mentors are vital to success. They must first agree to invest their time in the trainee and believe that person can forward innovative, useful research; then they must come up with a research and training plan.

“They need to agree that the project is feasible, you can do it in their lab, and they have the expertise needed to help you,” says Dr. Tefft. “And then when it’s done, that you’ll have something you can take to launch an independent career.”

But mentors don’t solve all the problems, says Dr. Lerman.

Brandon Tefft, Ph.D. and Amir Lerman, M.D

“You give them the opportunity to struggle and not solve all the challenges,” says Dr. Lerman. “It’s extremely important for me at least that they know how to operate in a team.”

After securing their buy in, Dr. Tefft sat down with his mentors and discussed promising projects.

“A good project is a project that is thoughtful, innovative, and that has the potential in the future to actually improve patient care which is especially the emphasis of the Mayo vision,” explains Dr. Lerman.

Working together, the team teased out a hypothesis and aims Dr. Tefft could continue to explore from a bioengineering perspective, and that he could take in his own direction if successful. This process is important, Dr. Tefft says, because it allows a research trainee to bring the topic of career advancement into the conversation. And for a trainee, it can come as an enormous relief.

“This award is a game changer,” says Dr. Tefft. “It removes a lot of uncertainty.”

— Sara Tiner, March 24, 2017