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Bench to Bedside: How Academic Medicine Improves Patients’ Lives

In simplest terms, medicine is applying the knowledge derived from science to a patient. It is the act of taking the work done in a laboratory and using it to improve lives.

Most of us think of these as discrete practices. Someone does the research in a lab, and someone else applies it in a clinic. In many cases that’s how it works.

But at some institutions, doctors do both. They practice “academic medicine.” And when you have doctors who spend part of their day engaged with the latest medical research, it directly benefits their patients. They also train the next generation of physicians and scientists.

Dr. Melena Bellin is one of the many doctors who practice academic medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

How is academic medicine different? Let’s look at Dr. Bellin’s typical day to see.

Researching Tomorrow’s Treatments

As a professor in the Department of Pediatrics Division of Endocrinology, Dr. Bellin spends part of her day conducting research. Her work focuses on understanding what causes diseases like diabetes and developing new treatments for them.

An example of her research is islet transplantation. The procedure transplants insulin-producing cells into the livers of diabetic patients, making it possible for them to produce their own insulin. It has the potential to greatly improve their quality of life.

“I found that by engaging in clinical research, we could really advance care and bring cutting edge medicine to patients.”

Her work is collaborative. She engages with colleagues and medical students. Which means that – in addition to her own research – she is up-to-date on the latest practices.

Caring for Today’s Patients

Part of Dr. Bellin’s day is spent treating patients in hospitals and clinics. “I actually wanted to go into medicine as early as junior high,” she says. “I wanted to be a pediatrician. I wanted to help people.”

As a pediatric endocrinologist, Dr. Bellin treats young patients with hormonal imbalances, often manifesting in conditions like type 1 diabetes.

It’s in the clinics and hospitals where academic medicine yields immediate benefit. Access to colleagues from different disciplines allows her to consider different perspectives, making it more likely she provides the best treatment to her patients.

Those treatments may go beyond the standard of care. That’s because Dr. Bellin and her colleagues are developing new treatments that, in special cases, may be offered to patients.

Training Tomorrow’s Doctors

Because she is faculty at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Dr. Bellin helps train the next generation of doctors by teaching them in the lab and training in hospitals and clinics.

This work has an outsized impact on the health of our state. In fact, over 70 percent of the doctors in Minnesota graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Putting Academic Medicine to Work

An example of putting academic medicine into practice involves the case of two young sisters, Maleah and Lauren, who were suffering from chronic pancreatitis.

Chronic pancreatitis is a debilitating illness. When it flared, the sisters would experience intense episodes of nausea, vomiting, and pain. Childhood experiences – as common as building snow forts – became impossible.

For Maleah and Lauren, it got to the point where the pain would never go away.

That led their parents, Erin and Alex, to Dr. Bellin and academic medicine. Eventually, they would each be treated with removal of their pancreas and an islet transplantation.

Explains Dr. Bellin, “It’s a complicated procedure. I do the diabetes piece. But there’s a GI piece, a pain piece, a surgery piece” — it’s a list that goes on and on, so she simply adds — “a huge multidisciplinary team.”

Now, Alex and Erin marvel at even the littlest things their girls can do.

“They get to be kids,” says Erin. “Running and playing without having to worry about the pain they used to live with.”

Learn more about Maleah and Lauren's story here »


M Physicians are an extension of the University of Minnesota Medical School. As Medical School faculty, they are always looking for new and better ways to treat patients, whether in the laboratory or the clinic. And through clinical trials, cutting-edge therapies are sometimes available to patients when the standard of care is no longer enough.

What is Academic Medicine?

Most medicine is practiced within what is called “the standard of care.” Simply put, “standard of care” is the treatment that is commonly accepted for treating illness. This is a good thing! It means that patients receive treatments that are known to be generally effective and reliable.

The goal of academic medicine is to treat patients while looking for better therapies. It takes the toughest problems from the clinic and looks for solutions in our research. Many of our physicians — leaders in their fields — are also scientists.

When a patient faces an illness that requires treatment that exceeds the standard of care, academic medicine can provide access to newer therapies.

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