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Endowment's funding for MSTP program to expire

Crucial funding from the Duke Endowment for the Duke University Medical Center's MD-Ph.D. program is set to expire next year, sending into question the viability of some students' slots in the program .

Since 2000, six students in the Medical Scientist Training Program have had their tuition, stipends and fees subsidized by the Charlotte-based Duke Endowment, an independent non-profit organization. The funding covers the students' financial needs for five years. Starting in 2007, the six students will have to find other funding avenues.

The Duke Endowment's annual contribution has ranged from a high of $452,000 in 2002 to a little more than $300,000 in recent years.

Dr. Sal Pizzo, director of MSTP, said he does not know how the money will be replaced. He speculated that it could come from the general budget, but he also emphasized the uncertainty of the process.

"As it looks now, we will not be recruiting as many students," he said. "It will start to be a problem."

Dave Roberson, director of communications for the Duke Endowment, said the funding grants are never intended to run indefinitely; they usually last only three years.

Roberson added that it is up to Duke to reapply. "We respond based on how the University prioritizes its goals," he said.

The University recently accepted a $75-million gift from the Endowment to be put toward undergraduate, graduate and professional student financial aid.

Pizzo acknowledged that DUMC administration has demonstrated a "high commitment" to the program.

Dr. Edward Halperin, vice dean of the School of Medicine, rejected any suggestion of wrongdoing by the Endowment. "They made a promise, kept it, and their grant will conclude according to schedule," he wrote in an e-mail.

Pizzo maintained that the program is one of the most successful initiatives in the medical center.

Its goal is to train academic physicians who practice but also conduct research, Pizzo said. It is one of the three oldest programs of its kind in the country.

Although MSTP is expensive to run, its cost is worthwhile, Pizzo said. He noted that the program is "uniquely complex" and pointed to its increasing selectivity as a benchmark of its success.

"Generally, MSTP students are the best ones in the medical school. If we could raise more money, we could fund graduate and medical school for more students," he said, adding that "every year there are kids we can't take whom we would have loved to."

The program enrolls approximately 75 graduate and professional students annually. A change in the level of MSTP's federal funding may also precipitate its downsizing. MSTP has received the maximum amount of funding available annually from the National Institute of Health, but with shifting priorities in Washington D.C., its continuation is not guaranteed.

"If the president and Congress want to put more money toward bioterrorism, that leads to less money in NIH for projects like ours, and that will pinch," Pizzo explained.