Harrington Pathway Experience

Dennis Watson, MD
Dennis Watson, MD, PhD

Why were you interested in joining the Harrington Physician-Scientist Pathway?

My career goal is to be a physician-scientist specializing in the discovery and early clinical development of novel immune therapies for cancer. The training mission of the Harrington Physician-Scientist Pathway aligned perfectly with this goal. The world-class clinical and research reputation of University Hospitals and Case Western Reserve University made the program an exciting opportunity.

What kind of research background did you have before joining the program?

I undertook my PhD training at the National Cancer Institute, through a Graduate Partnership Program agreement with the University of Patras, Greece. My graduate research focused on the translational development of a novel immunostimulatory cytokine, heterodimeric IL-15, for the treatment of HIV infection and cancer. In pre-clinical studies, I engineered cells to produced nano-sized extracellular vesicles carrying this cytokine for tumor-targeted delivery and developed technologies for the mass-production and purification of these vesicles. I also tested an optimized step-dosing regimen of heterodimeric IL-15 in a non-human primate model of HIV infection. Finally, I worked with clinical investigators at the NIH Clinical Center to collect and analyze data from the first-in-human Phase I trial of heterodimeric IL-15 in patients with advanced solid malignancies.

Why did you think the pathway would be a good fit for you? How did it stand out from other programs you were considering?

The Harrington Physician-Scientist Pathway strives to support physician-scientists during the critical post-graduate training period, making it a perfect fit for my career goals. Things that stood out included: (a) guaranteed admission to sub-specialty of choice, (b) commitment of the Program Directors of the Harrington Physician-Scientist Pathway, Internal Medicine and Oncology (my chosen sub-specialty) to helping trainees achieve their goals, (c) camaraderie among trainees at University Hospitals and (d) the abundant research resources among UH, Case Western and the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Was there a faculty member you were particularly interested in working with and why?

Before matching to the Harrington Physician-Scientist Pathway, I had not identified a specific faculty member that I wanted to work with. Nonetheless, after looking at the breadth of ongoing research at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center, I had no doubt that this program was uniquely positioned to facilitate my research training.

How has the program advanced your research career so far?

Throughout my training, the Harrington Physician-Scientist Program has provided support to attend scientific meetings, maintain membership in professional societies, and access training resources. During clinical residency/fellowship training, the program specifically supported my travel to scientific meetings to present my latest PhD research and provided time to finish writing my doctoral dissertation. As I transitioned to the research portion of the fellowship, the program fully supported my work in the laboratory of Dr. Justin D. Lathia, where I study inter-cellular interactions that facilitate tumor growth in glioblastoma. Furthermore, it continues to encourage and support my academic career development and application to career development grants.

Do you have any advice for medical students who are considering a research pathway for their residency?

If your goal is to be a clinician with an independent research career, I would definitely apply to research pathways for residency training. Programs that allow you to directly match into the research pathway (rather than applying after matching) and those that guarantee acceptance to sub-specialty fellowship are optimal because they enable you to spend more of your time and energy on robust clinical and research training. Finally, finding a place with a strong track record of clinical and research training, as well as a work environment that fits your personality is key.