Wright Center welcomes three inaugural C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Physician-Scientist Scholars

Dr. Buckley stands smiling with the three scholars and Mr. Wright in a ballroom. All are wearing suits.
From left to right: VCU School of Medicine dean Peter Buckley, M.D., Teja Devarakonda, Graeme Murray, Mr. Ken Wright, and Eric Kwong

By Anne Dreyfuss
VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research

A new program made possible by a $4 million endowment established by longtime Virginia Commonwealth University benefactor C. Kenneth Wright is connecting the next generation of health sciences researchers with the resources and training they need to support their work.

The C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Physician-Scientist Scholars Program welcomed its inaugural class earlier this year. The program that is open to VCU School of Medicine M.D.-Ph.D. students in their second year or further of graduate school training offsets the students’ tuition, fees, and stipends during medical school years. It also provides the students with up to $3,000 each year, which can be applied toward travel to a meeting to present results of their clinical or translational research, defraying the cost of a United States Medical Licensing Examination, or defraying the cost of residency program interviews. Additionally, it can be applied to partially defer medical school tuition and stipend costs for each scholar.

“The students were selected on the basis of their outstanding proposals for translational or clinical research projects,” said M.D.-Ph.D. program director Michael Donnenberg, M.D. VCU School of Medicine professor emeritus and former M.D.-Ph.D. program director Gordon Archer, M.D., chaired the committee that reviewed program applicants and selected three students for the awards based on their application’s scientific merit, feasibility and translational emphasis.

Fourth-year Ph.D. student Teja Devarakonda will study how the heart functions during a heart attack.

“Heart attacks damage the heart muscle tissue and impair the heart’s ability to provide blood to bodily organs,” he said.

With support from the Wright Physician-Scientist Scholars Program, Devarakonda and his research team will investigate the protective properties of a pregnancy-associated hormone called relaxin, which previous studies have shown as effective at reducing damage to cardiac tissues over time after a heart attack.

“My project specifically involves studying the protective effects of over-expressing a receptor for relaxin in a mammalian heart via a gene therapy-based approach after a heart attack,” Devarakonda said. “We hope the research can lead to further insight into translational approaches to benefit patients suffering from heart attacks and heart failure.”

After graduating, Devarakonda plans to pursue a residency in internal medicine and would like to specialize in cardiology. “The Physician-Scientist Scholars Program will provide me with the necessary framework for training and financial support as I progress through the rest of the M.D.-Ph.D. program,” he said.

Third-year Ph.D. student Graeme Murray already applied a portion of the scholarship funding to pay for travel to meet with a research team at the University of California Los Angeles Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, where he helped a research team build a microscope to help doctors determine if a cancer patient will benefit from a given therapy. The microscope, which Murray helped develop with his research team at VCU, tracks changes in mass of tens of thousands of single cells from patient tumors.

“If single cells from the patient are resistant to a given therapy, the cells will continue to grow in mass,” Murray said. “But if the cells are sensitive to the therapy, they will decrease in mass over time and die.”

The screening methodology allows his research team to identify sub-populations of resistant cells that have been shown to lead to drug resistance in patients. He hopes for the methodology to one day be used by doctors to inform therapy choices.

“With success, doctors will be able to identify patients who will benefit from a given therapy before trying it,” Murray said. “This could ensure patients receive the optimal therapy for their cancer.”

In the coming years, Murray hopes to apply funding from the scholarship toward attending the American Association for Cancer Research and Cancer Research UK’s joint conference on engineering and physical sciences in oncology. “The Physician-Scientist Scholars Program has allowed me to travel across the country to work with collaborators,” he said. “In the future, it will allow me to travel to conferences to share our work and learn from others in the field of oncology research.”

Eric Kwong, who has completed the graduate school training portion of the M.D.-Ph.D. program and is in his third year of medical school training, will apply the scholarship to support his research aimed at modulating a specific enzyme to reduce liver disease severity. Through the course of his research, he will test drug compounds in mice in an attempt to improve disease progression.

“The goal of my research is to understand the disease process that leads to irreversible liver injury, scarring, and non-functioning liver,” Kwong said. Non-alcoholic liver disease and alcoholic liver disease are the most common liver diseases worldwide, but no effective pharmacologic treatments exist for them. “Ultimately, I want to contribute to the development of therapeutic drugs that can reduce or reverse the disease progression,” he said.

After graduating, Kwong plans to pursue a medical residency and specialize in gastroenterology. “I want to take care of patients who have various gastrointestinal and liver diseases while conducting translational research for the development of novel treatment options for diseases that we do not yet have cures,” he said. “The Physician-Scientist Scholars Program will help me extend the fundamental scientific findings I have discovered in the laboratory and test those ideas in mice, with the goal of discovering potential drug targets for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and alcoholic liver disease.”

In addition to the $4 million Physician-Scientist Scholars Program endowment, Wright’s $16 million gift to name the Wright Center in 2015 established six Distinguished Chairs in Clinical and Translational Research.

“Mr. Wright’s support has enabled us to aid VCU in recruiting distinguished researchers from around the country, in addition to helping us prepare the best and brightest students for careers along the spectrum of translational science,” said Wright Center director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D.

Wright gift enables researchers to find answers in data

Mr. Wright stands with Dr. Moeller. Mr. Wright is wearing a tweed jacket and red collared shirt. Dr. Moeller is wearing a white dress shirt and light blue tie.
Mr. Ken Wright stands with F. Gerard “Gerry” Moeller, M.D., at the new 6,000-square-foot research space dedicated to biomedical informatics at VCU. The Wright Center Biomedical Informatics Program has expanded over the past year to enable researchers to explore diseases and treatments in new ways. Photo by Eric Peters

This story originally appeared in the MCV Foundation‘s Chronicle of Giving magazine. To read the full story and other articles about the life-saving effect of private gifts on the MCV Campus, click here

Thanks to a $5 million gift last spring from one of Virginia Commonwealth University’s most generous supporters, biomedical informatics at the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research is poised to change the way research in our region can be conducted.

Ken Wright’s gift established a new 6,000-square-foot space where more than a dozen specialists serve the community’s and the university’s research needs. With the help of biomedical informatics, researchers can combine large amounts of data, such as imaging and genomic information, to find answers that lead to preventions or new treatments for diseases.

One example of how biomedical informatics can work is in screening for mild traumatic brain injury. Mild traumatic brain injury doesn’t have a very strong signal if a radiologist looks at an MRI alone, but combining the data from that MRI with other available data could be very beneficial. For example, a care team could search for the previously unnoticed and small mild traumatic brain injury signatures that appear every time in millions of data points beyond just MRIs.

F. Gerard “Gerry” Moeller, M.D., is the director of the Wright Center, associate vice president for clinical research and the inaugural C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Distinguished Chair in Clinical and Translational Research. He is using biomedical informatics to make an impact in his own research as he studies the effectiveness of initiating long-term recovery care for opioid overdose
survivors before those survivors ever leave the emergency department. By providing a medication earlier than current practices dictate, and by providing a same-day referral to a recovery facility, Dr. Moeller expects to reduce repeat overdoses and deaths.

The impact Mr. Wright’s giving has made on the research infrastructure at the university and the center bearing his name played a critical role in helping the center secure the largest National Institutes of Health grant in the university’s history. Announced in May 2018, the $21.5 million award will support the Wright Center in its mission to advance university and community research from basic laboratory science to treatments that improve human health.

“Last year’s grant and Mr. Wright’s most recent gift are going to dramatically enhance our biomedical informatics capabilities,” Dr. Moeller said. “We’re expanding into those areas where there are really massive amounts of data so we can look at diseases in ways we haven’t been able to do before.”

If you’re interested in learning about the tools available to support the Wright Center, patient care, research or education across the MCV Campus, contact Brian Thomas at brian.thomas@vcuhealth.org or 804-828-0067.

Meet the Team: Maureen Olmsted

At the Wright Center, we seek to advance science and foster partnerships that accelerate translational research for the betterment of human health. Our team members come to work every day ready to transform laboratory discoveries into treatments for patients, engage communities in clinical research and train a new generation of clinical and translational scholars, all with the shared goal of bridging the gap between scientific theory and practical medicine.

Each month, we will highlight one member of our team who is contributing to our shared mission of advancing science and fostering partnerships that accelerate translational research for the betterment of human health.

For a full list of staff members, please visit cctr.vcu.edu/aboutus/staff.

Meet the Team

Headshot image of Maureen Olmsted smiling. She is wearing a black blouse and square-rimmed glasses.

Maureen Olmsted, Ph.D., joined the Wright Center in January of 2019. She describes the research navigator role as similar to the sweepers in the sport of curling – clearing away obstacles so that researchers can focus on their studies. This can include anything from finding a template for an investigator writing a grant to identifying VCU resources to help them collect data. As the ClinicalTrials.gov administrator, Olmsted identifies studies that need registration at ClinicalTrials.gov and helps researchers navigate the registration process. She received her bachelor’s degree from UC Riverside in psychology and sociology, earned a Ph.D. in social/health psychology from Stony Brook University, and completed a certificate in database development at Scottsdale Community College. Before coming to VCU, Olmsted worked as a research project manager and clinical research coordinator on a range of research projects, as well as working as an IT project manager. In her spare time, she enjoys dancing (swing, ballroom, and Latin) and various crafts, including sewing and mosaic work.

SOCRA Certified Clinical Research Professional (CCRP) certification exam

SOCRA For Clinical Research Excellence. Education, Certification, Membership, Career Center

Virginia Commonwealth University and the Central Virginia Chapter of the Society of Clinical Research Associates (SOCRA) will host the SOCRA Certified Clinical Research Professional (CCRP) certification exam on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019, from 8 a.m. until noon. The scope of the SOCRA Certification Program is based on the principles of Good Clinical Practice, including the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, ICH GCP E6, and the Ethical Principles that guide clinical research (Belmont Report, Declaration of Helsinki and the Nuremberg Code). One certification covers human clinical research of pharmaceuticals, biologics, medical devices, and behavioral research within the U.S. or internationally. The exam application and supporting documents must be submitted to SOCRA no later than Sept. 6, 2019. Informational certification exam sessions are scheduled for Monday, July 15, 2019, and Friday, Aug. 16, 2019, from 11 a.m. to noon in the McGlothlin Medical Education Center, room 11-101/102.

Through a collaborative effort between VCU Massey Cancer Center and the Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, certification exam study support sessions (SOCRA for Success) will be offered for those within the VCU and VCU Health community registered for the SOCRA certification exam (VCU-hosted, computer-based, or alternate site). Six weekly sessions covering the certification exam content areas will be held beginning Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. SOCRA for Success registration and commitment to attend all sessions is required. Please contact Shirley Helm at shirley.helm@vcuhealth.org, 804-628-2942, or Patti Feldt at pafeldt@vcu.edu, 804-628-1902 for additional information or questions.


VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational ResearchMassey Cancer Center VCU

Wright Center students and staff work with Massey researchers to develop first comprehensive models of “seeds and soil” as a means to combat breast cancer metastasis

Dr. Chuck Harrell and Tia Turner stand in a laboratory side-by-side. Both wearing white lab coats.
From left to right: Chuck Harrell, Ph.D., and Wright Center M.D.-Ph.D. student Tia Turner (Photo by Craig Hutson Photography)

With support from the VCU Wright Center, scientists at VCU Massey Cancer Center have identified key biological pathways that regulate the spread of tumor cells to vital organs. These findings may have a significant influence on the development of new therapies that slow or prevent breast cancer metastasis.

Metastasis refers to the spread of cancer cells to other organs, and the likelihood of curing cancer is significantly reduced once the disease has spread. Nearly all breast cancer deaths are caused by metastasis within vital organs.

The concept of cancer metastasis has long been supported by the “seed and soil” proposal, in which it is theorized that cancer cells (seeds) are dependent upon the tissue of organs (soil) to thrive in sites beyond their point of origin. This hypothesis laid the foundation for why cancer metastases are more common in certain organs over others, such as the lungs, lymph nodes, bones or liver. The idea is that these organs offer a more fertile environment for cancer cell growth. Since this proposal’s inception over a century ago, much more emphasis has been placed on studying the seeds rather than the soil. Scientists have focused heavily on the genetic properties of cancer cells that have spread to other organs, but what have remained much less understood are the genomic properties of the organic tissue that harbors successful metastatic growth.

Research led by Chuck Harrell, Ph.D., member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program at Massey and assistant professor of pathology at the VCU School of Medicine, set out to better understand the cancer-specific and organ-specific genomic qualities that contribute to successful breast cancer metastasis.

Using mouse models containing cells from breast cancer patients, Harrell developed novel metastasis representations of different types of breast tumors found in humans. Wright Center clinical and translational sciences M.D.-Ph.D. student Tia Turner helped develop and characterize the models.

“These are the first models that characterize how cancer cells genetically change when they have spread to different organs, and, in parallel, that demonstrate how the organ genetically responds to the invading cancer cells,” Harrell said.

In the study, published in Breast Cancer Research, Turner worked with Harrell and a team of researchers to create RNA sequencing datasets for metastatic models of ER-positive, triple negative and HER-2 positive breast cancer, with a particular focus on triple negative breast cancer due to the lack of current treatment options available. As part of the research team, Turner performed RNA preparations from tumors and metastases for RNA-sequencing, as well as in vitro testing of SRC inhibitors on cancer cells.

“We discovered that during the growth of breast cancer metastases, genomic changes occurred within both the cancer cells and the organ microenvironment,” Harrell said. “Our experiments identified key biological pathways that control the growth of breast cancer metastases, and we believe these findings can be used to help develop targeted therapeutics that prevent or slow cancer progression.”

Specifically, the researchers identified the SRC signaling pathway as highly activated in breast cancer metastases. This pathway plays a role in cell growth and embryonic development, and it impacts other pathways to promote blood vessel formation, cell survival and proliferation. However, drugs that inhibit the SRC pathway have already been developed and were proven clinically ineffective as a sole method of cancer therapy, often leading to continued tumor growth.

“Multiple pathways within the cancer cells, and potentially within the host organ as well, may need to be targeted to inhibit the growth of metastases,” Harrell said. “Our ongoing efforts are aimed at identifying synergistic combinations of drugs that inhibit the SRC pathway and other pathways that promote metastasis.”

Photo of Amy Olex smiling wearing a red short-sleeved blouse and square-rimmed glasses
Amy Olex

Wright Center senior bioinformatics specialist Amy Olex played a central role in the bioinformatics analysis of the genomics data, helping to develop and implement a bioinformatics pipeline to process the RNA-sequencing dataset from the samples that Harrell’s team generated. “This pipeline had to be able to separate human and mouse genomic material so that we could analyze human tumor and mouse microenviroment gene expression individually for each mouse model,” Olex said, adding that the separation of human and mouse genomic material was done digitally, so no wet lab techniques were needed to physically sort out human and mouse tissue prior to sequencing.

Turner continuously uses the RNA-sequencing dataset that Olex helped develop to investigate other potential drug targets in mammary tumors and metastases. “The dataset is an extremely valuable resource in our ongoing search for important pathways in breast cancer metastases, as well as the organs bearing those metastases, that may serve as promising drug targets,” Turner said.

Harrell, Turner and the research team conducted a second related study, which focused on the characterization of how 14 different patients’ breast cancer cells grew when they had spread to the liver. Turner helped prepare mouse model tumor tissues for the liver metastasis experiments.

“We were able to determine that the breast cancer cells grew at varying rates and many were structurally distinct as liver metastases,” Harrell said. “Evaluating the diversity of presentation within metastatic disease is essential to developing novel targeted therapies.”

Harrell observed a correlation between increased spread of tumor cells and a greater influx of innate immune cells, which are the body’s automatic first line of defense against disease. This finding warrants further investigation of innate immune cell interaction with breast cancer liver metastases and the liver microenvironment.

Harrell said this research is important because scientists need reliable metastasis models to use in order to determine the drugs that can be an effective alternative for treating surgically inaccessible cancer cells.

For Turner, the research experience is contributing to her efforts toward identifying novel combination therapies for triple-negative breast cancer. “The Wright Center has contributed greatly to my work,” she said. “As a M.D.-Ph.D. student in the cancer and molecular medicine program, my training has been focused heavily on the integration of basic and clinical sciences, with a strong emphasis on translational research fostered by the Clinical and Translational Science Award.” The interdisciplinary training program has helped Turner integrate her clinical knowledge into research, “which is highly important in preclinical drug development studies aiming for successful translation into the clinical setting and advancements in patient care,” she said. “My training through the Wright Center has helped me develop the skills and perspective needed in carrying out translational research.”

Harrell, Olex and Turner collaborated on these research efforts with Mikhail Dozmorov, Ph.D., member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program at VCU Massey Cancer Center; Mohammad Alzubi, Sahib Sohal,  Madhumitha Sriram, Patricija Zot and Michael Idowu of the VCU Department of Pathology at VCU School of Medicine; Jonas Bergh, M.D., Ph.D., Thomas Hatschek, M.D., Ph.D., and Nicholas Tobin, Ph.D., of Cancer Center Karolinska in Sweden; Joel Parker, Ph.D., Charles Perou, Ph.D., and Susana Recio, Ph.D., of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center; and Carol Sartorious, Ph.D., of the University of Colorado.

This research was supported, in part, by METAvivor; the National Cancer Institute (P50-CA58223, R01-CA148761 and R01-CA195754); the Breast Cancer Research Foundation; the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (CTSA award No. UL1TR002649); and, in part, with funding from Massey’s NIH/NCI Cancer Center Support Grant P30 CA016059.

Re-purposed from an article by Blake Belden, VCU Massey Cancer Center

Meet the Team: Amy Olex

At the Wright Center, we seek to advance science and foster partnerships that accelerate translational research for the betterment of human health. Our team members come to work every day ready to transform laboratory discoveries into treatments for patients, engage communities in clinical research and train a new generation of clinical and translational scholars, all with the shared goal of bridging the gap between scientific theory and practical medicine.

Each month, we will highlight one member of our team who is contributing to our shared mission of advancing science and fostering partnerships that accelerate translational research for the betterment of human health.

For a full list of staff members, please visit cctr.vcu.edu/aboutus/staff.

Meet the Team

Photo of Amy Olex smiling wearing a red short-sleeved blouse and square-rimmed glassesAmy Olex joined the Wright Center informatics team in 2014. As a senior bioinformatics specialist, she provides bioinformatics and natural language processing (NLP) research services to the VCU and VCU Health communities through education and training, pipeline development and data analysis. Olex specializes in processing next-generation genomic sequencing data and is currently developing a pipeline to process the first single cell RNA-Seq data generated by a VCU Health researcher. She also leads bioinformatics and NLP seminars and workshops, and is the lead in a new Wright Center collaboration with Chicago’s CTSA to use NLP methods to improve surveillance of the opioid epidemic. Olex earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science at VCU in 2005, followed by a master’s degree in computer science and a certification in structural and computational biology at Wake Forest University in 2007. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in computer science with a focus on NLP at VCU. Outside of work and school, she enjoys spending time with her two children and husband, as well as gardening, crafts and outdoor activities.

Community engagement transcends translational science spectrum at annual conference

Dr. Gerry Moeller speaks animatedly wearing a suit in front of a mustard yellow wall
Wright Center Director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D. Photo by Kevin Morley, VCU University Relations.

By Anne Dreyfuss
VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research

At the Virginia Commonwealth University Community Engagement Institute on May 14, Wright Center Director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., discussed how he harnesses community-academic partnerships to address the opioid epidemic.

“Virginia has succumbed to the opioid overdose epidemic just like the rest of the country, and the patterns vary significantly from one county to the next,” he said. “Dealing effectively with this is going to require a community-engaged approach. We will not have an impact without fostering partnerships with our community.”

The mantra of community members’ fundamental role in impactful translational research echoed throughout the two-day conference held on the VCU Monroe Park Campus, where more than 80 community-engaged scholars gathered to explore the power and potential of university-community partnerships.

“The Community Engagement Institute provided us with an opportunity to connect and re-establish existing connections with people who are energized about continuously improving our community engagement efforts,” said Wright Center community engagement associate Alicia Aroche, who helped plan the conference and presented on best practices for communicating about the work of community-academic partnerships.

Since May 2014, the Wright Center and the VCU Division of Community Engagement have partnered annually to host the event that unites academic and community stakeholders who share a commitment to solving challenges through community-academic collaboration. “When you have complex problems, it takes people with varying expertise from the community and academic centers to solve them,” said VCU Division of Community Engagement vice provost Cathy Howard, Ph.D. Through interactive workshops, attendees built skills around initiating and sustaining community-academic partnerships, as well as assessing and communicating the work of such partnerships.

“Partnering with our communities allows us to do better research,” said Wright Center community-engaged research co-director Alex Krist, M.D.

The three Wright Center Clinical Research KL2 Scholars smile for a photo. They are all wearing cardigans.
Wright Center Clinical Research KL2 Scholars (from left to right) Guizhi (Julian) Zhu, Ph.D.; Mario Acunzo, M.D.; and Elizabeth Wolf, M.D. Photo by Kevin Morley, VCU University Relations.

Krist is a mentor to Wright Center Clinical Research KL2 Scholar Elizabeth Wolf, M.D., who is working on a community-engagement project that aims to identify geographic and patient-level risk factors for inadequate prenatal and well-child care in the Greater Richmond Region. “I attended the Community Engagement Institute because I wanted to learn more about best principles that I could apply to my research,” Wolf said. The assistant professor of pediatrics and emergency care at VCU School of Medicine is partnering with the VCU Center on Society and Health’s Engaging Richmond program to develop strategies aimed at reducing health disparities for vulnerable women and children.

The conference was funded in-part through the $21.5 million Clinical and Translational Science Award that the Wright Center received from the National Institutes of Health in 2018. The largest NIH grant in VCU’s history allows the Wright Center to collaborate across disciplines within the university and health system, and with community partners around the region, all with the shared goal of accelerating innovative research that advances the scientific study of human health.

“Events like the annual Community Engagement Institute allow us to better mobilize existing strengths in community engagement and team science to engage stakeholder communities at every translational phase,” Krist said. “Ultimately, we want to work with community members as research partners and form collaborative clinical research translational science teams to improve the health of our communities together.”

Meet the Team: Tamas Gal

At the Wright Center, we seek to advance science and foster partnerships that accelerate translational research for the betterment of human health. Our team members come to work every day ready to transform laboratory discoveries into treatments for patients, engage communities in clinical research and train a new generation of clinical and translational scholars, all with the shared goal of bridging the gap between scientific theory and practical medicine.

Each month, we will highlight one member of our team who is contributing to our shared mission of advancing science and fostering partnerships that accelerate translational research for the betterment of human health.

For a full list of staff members, please visit cctr.vcu.edu/aboutus/staff.

Meet the Team

Tamas Gal looks at the camera wearing a beige suite and tieAs director of research informatics at the Wright Center and VCU Massey Cancer Center, Tamas Gal, MBA, Ph.D., develops and manages the VCU research informatics enterprise. His interests include natural language processing and multimodality precision medicine data integration and analysis. Gal earned his doctorate in information systems from the University of Maryland. Outside of work, he enjoys spending time with his family doing outdoor activities.