Mrinal Patnaik, M.B.B.S., is a physician in the Department of Hematology at Mayo Clinic with a keen interest in the clinical management of blood cancers. In recent years, however, Dr. Patnaik realized he wanted to develop a deeper understanding of the disease biology of these cancers and the ways that precision genomics could be used to improve therapy and quality of life for patients. “I was looking for more training and mentorship, and to learn the skills to become an independent researcher,” says Dr. Patnaik, “so I applied to Mayo’s KL2 program.”
Mayo Clinic Public Affairs recently sat down with Dr. Patnaik to ask him about his experience in the KL2 program and his future goals in patient care and research.
What is the KL2 program and why did you apply?
The KL2 Mentored Career Development Program is a program offered through the Mayo Clinic Center for Clinical and Translational Science for people who want to pursue careers as clinical researchers. It lasts for three years and, if you get accepted, you receive 75 percent protected research time and full salary, plus mentorship from a senior Mayo investigator.
I applied because the life of a clinician is busy. Sometimes I had research ideas I wanted to pursue, but I didn’t have the time or skills to develop them. Through the KL2 award I have had time to dedicate to research and I have had access to mentors who can teach me what I need to learn to be successful. I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to develop in-vitro and in-vivo models, how to use genomic tools and how to analyze results, and how to write grants. I don’t think any of this would have been remotely possible without the KL2 award.
Tell us about your KL2 research project.
I was inspired to pursue research to help find solutions to unmet patient needs I saw in my work as a clinician in hematology. In my research I’m focusing on a blood cancer called chronic myelomonocytic leukemia. Patients with this condition often need blood transfusions, their livers and spleens enlarge, and most die within two years of diagnosis. It’s a rare disease and it presents a good opportunity to use individualized medicine to understand the heterogeneity of the disease. We all know that no two people are alike—and their cancers aren’t either. I want to find ways to customize therapies to the type of tumor as well as to the individual patient.
The KL2 program recruits a diverse team of research scholars from many biomedical disciplines. Why do you think that’s important?
I think the diversity aspect is critical. If you’re trying to advance the field of medicine, you need to understand more than “just cancer” or “just hematology.” You need to understand how different disciplines are connected and how they can work together.
At least once a month, all of the KL2 scholars get together and we talk about our work. It’s fascinating. I’m working in cancer epigenetics. There are other people in the group working on cancer survivorship, biostatistics, and neurodevelopmental disorders. To bring all that diversity under one banner and be able to understand development across all fields of medicine is very important. That kind of sharing of knowledge and exposure to different disciplines helps speed translation.
Why do you think clinicians and scientists should apply to the KL2 program? And why should departments support participation?
I understand why departments and individuals may be reluctant to take part in a program like KL2. It’s a big investment: time away from patients, projects and regular duties. Here’s the thing, though, I think there’s actually a huge incentive for them to take part in career development programs like this. When patients come to Mayo Clinic, they’re looking for something they can’t get anywhere else. They’re looking for innovation, excellence, cutting edge clinical trials—something unique that can really, truly help them. To find solutions for unmet patient needs, we need to take full advantage of Mayo’s research pool and we need to hone our own talent. KL2 gives clinicians and scientists, like me, the knowledge and skills we need to do this important work.
What’s next for you after KL2? Will you continue to be a clinician-researcher?
Yes, I think I’ll continue to be a clinician researcher. I think the two go hand-in-hand. I want to take what I’ve learned and apply it to patients in general. If you understand epigenetics and precision genomics, you don’t have to focus only one thing, like blood cancer. You can apply it broadly across the field of medicine.
I’ll be in the KL2 program until July 2019, but I’m already starting to branch out and try new things. Because of my interest in precision genomics and the techniques I’ve learned through KL2, I’ve gotten linked up with some researchers at the Mayo Clinic Center for Individualized Medicine. I’m working on a multidisciplinary team that is looking at using precision genomics to better identify patients with short telomeres and accelerated aging syndromes. I look forward to doing more work like this in the future.
Would you like to become a KL2 research mentor to other clinicians and scientists?
Oh absolutely, I would love to do that. At some point, to be a lab mentor to someone and help them go through grant funding would be a privilege. I have seen how much I relied on my mentors. I see it as paying it forward. If you don’t give back, it’s hard for the next generation to succeed.