Wright Center associate director honored for his contributions toward undergraduate mentorship at VCU

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

Photo by Kevin Morley, VCU University Relations.

At a study abroad program in Fondi, a city halfway between Rome and Naples in central Italy, Henrico-native Krishna Ravindra discovered a passion for clinical and translational science. “Working with Dr. Abbate allowed me to see how a background in clinical medicine and translational research can allow one to not only help patients based on the current medicine available, but also have the opportunity to explore novel therapeutic strategies to improve patient care,” Ravindra said of Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., who leads the Virginia Commonwealth University study abroad trip hosted by the Instituto San Francesco and the University Campus Biomedico of Rome. During the three-week program, undergraduate VCU Honors College students study the signs and symptoms of disease and explore clinical and translational research.

 

When they returned to Richmond in the fall of 2017, Ravindra asked Abbate if he could shadow him during his clinical rotations at VCU Medical Center and volunteer on Abbate’s research team. Abbate, who is an associate director at the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, serves as the James C. Roberts, Esq. Professor of Cardiology at the VCU School of Medicine, as well as a practicing cardiologist at the VCU Health Pauley Heart Center and medical director at the VCU Medical Center Clinical Research Unit. “I am always happy to open my research team to undergraduate students,” Abbate said, adding that he became involved in research when he was 20 years old and benefitted from working with mentors who shared their enthusiasm for medical discovery and innovation early in his career. “It is important to offer students an opportunity to see what gets you up in the morning,” he said.

 

In the ensuing years Ravindra continued to volunteer on research projects under Abbate’s mentorship, including working with Abbate through the VCU Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. On April 24 Abbate was recognized for his work through that program with the VCU Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program Faculty Mentor Award, an honor that recognizes faculty members who have demonstrated a commitment to regularly go above and beyond to engage undergraduate students in research opportunities.

 

“Dr. Abbate placed an enormous amount of faith in me as an undergraduate student to complete complex chart reviews, patient analyses, and retrospective data analyses,” Ravindra said.

 

Through UROP, Ravindra worked with Abbate on a retrospective analysis of patients who were treated at VCU Medical Center for Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a complex clinical condition in which a person suddenly develops heart failure after emotional or physical stressors. Ravindra also worked on another research project aimed to predict the degree of cardiorespiratory fitness impairment in heart failure patients across a wide range of ejection fraction measurements, which indicate how much blood the left heart ventricle pumps with each contraction.

 

For four months Ravindra worked with Jessie van Wezenbeek, a graduate student from Amsterdam, on data collection and statistical analysis, which informed a manuscript detailing their findings. The manuscript published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine late last year and in November Ravindra presented the results of the pair’s research projects at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions conference in Chicago.

 

“I would never have dreamed of getting to present at such a large conference as an undergraduate student before working with Dr. Abbate,” Ravindra said. “Working with Dr. Abbate opened that door for me, as he constantly pushed me out of my comfort zone and took time to teach me one-on-one.”

 

Ravindra said Abbate inspired him to pursue a career in clinical and translational science. In the fall he will start medical school at VCU. “Dr. Abbate has shaped my view of what it means to be a physician and has illuminated the benefits of being a physician-scientist,” he said. “He emphasized the bench-to-bedside process of clinical and translational research. Further, he showed me that the process of discovery is never-ending and that we can always strive to do more for our patients.”

 

Abbate has devoted a significant amount of effort toward training the next generation of clinical and translational scholars since joining VCU in 2007. In 2016, the School of Medicine awarded him with the Distinguished Mentor Award, an honor that recognizes significant contributions to the career development of others.  In February, he was awarded the inaugural Thames-Kontos Mentoring Award from the VCU School of Medicine Department of Internal Medicine.

 

The Wright Center has funded two faculty-mentored undergraduate clinical and translational research projects through UROP every year since 2014. This summer, the Wright Center will fund biomedical engineering student Yasmina Zeineddine to research spinal cord injuries with mentor Carrie Peterson, Ph.D., who is an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at VCU College of Engineering. The Wright Center will also fund mechanical engineering student Sam Cole’s research on bioreactors for mechanical training of engineered tissues with mentor Joao Soares, Ph.D., who is an assistant professor at the VCU College of Engineering.

 

“The Wright Center is committed to fostering cross-campus collaborations with the VCU College of Engineering and other units on the VCU Monroe Park Campus with an aim of developing an interdisciplinary clinical and translational workforce that will be equipped to address emerging health care challenges,” said Wright Center Director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D. “We are happy to partner with the VCU Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program to help inspire an early interest in clinical and translational research among undergraduate researchers.”

VCU’s Jordana Kron is searching for answers to a mystery disease

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

Jennifer Jordan, Ph.D, left, and Jordana Kron, M.D., are working on a new treatment for sarcoidosis, an inflammatory condition that can lead to cardiac failure when it affects the heart. (Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing)

A disease that has no cause or cure, sarcoidosis affects people of all ages throughout the world. Once considered a rare disease, the inflammatory condition now affects about 40 in every 100,000 African Americans in the U.S. and about five in every 100,000 white people. It occurs in all races and in men and women, but is most common among African American females ages 20 to 40.

The disease most commonly affects the lungs, but can involve almost any organ system including the skin, eyes, joints and heart. Cardiac involvement, which occurs in up to 25% of patients with sarcoidosis in other organs, can lead to life-threatening heart rhythm problems and heart failure.

“The field of cardiac sarcoidosis, and sarcoidosis in general, really needs new mechanistically driven therapies,” said Jordana Kron, M.D., an associate professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and a cardiologist at the VCU Health Pauley Heart Center.

This month, which is National Sarcoidosis Awareness Month, Kron was awarded a $50,000 Pauley Pilot Research Grant to investigate a new treatment protocol for cardiac sarcoidosis. The 15-month grant will be used to evaluate the efficacy and safety of using an interleukin-1 blockade to treat patients who present with cardiac sarcoidosis. The study is the first of its kind to explore the new treatment paradigm.

“A new, safe and effective treatment could be life-altering for patients with cardiac sarcoidosis. It may also open the door for new therapies for cardiac sarcoidosis and other inflammatory heart diseases in the future,” said Kron, a translational science scholar at the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research.

Interleukin-1 is a protein whose presence indicates inflammation in the body. Kron’s research aims to evaluate if using medication to block the protein will help treat cardiac sarcoidosis.

“Corticosteroids are the most commonly used treatment for sarcoidosis, but there is little data showing their efficacy and they have significant side effects,” Kron said. “Interleukin-1 is the prototypical cytokine that plays a role in most inflammatory processes. Blockade of the protein has been shown to be effective in many types of heart disease.”

While cardiac sarcoidosis is the focus of Kron’s research, she is optimistic that — if shown to be effective — the blockade could be used to treat other forms of heart disease.

Tackling cardiac sarcoidosis

VCU has led clinical and translational research of cardiac sarcoidosis for nearly a decade and VCU Health is home to the Multidisciplinary Sarcoidosis Clinic, the only center of its kind in Virginia. At the clinic, located at the VCU Health Stony Point Campus, patients are able to meet with specialists in pulmonology, cardiology, electrophysiology and rheumatology during a single appointment.

In 2011, VCU researchers teamed with researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Colorado to start the international Cardiac Sarcoidosis Consortium. Kron is a founding member. The consortium is a prospective, multicenter registry that tracks cardiac sarcoidosis patients worldwide. It includes demographic, clinical, medication and imaging data from more than 25 contributing centers in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Kron attributes much of the headway she has made in researching sarcoidosis to support from the Wright Center, Virginia’s first institution to receive a Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health. Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., associate director of the Wright Center, has served as a mentor and co-investigator on Kron’s research. Abbate, a cardiology professor at the VCU School of Medicine and a cardiologist at the Pauley Heart Center, also will share his expertise on cardiac inflammation and interleukin-1 blockers throughout the study. F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., director of the Wright Center, and Patrick Nana-Sinkam, M.D., the center’s KL2 program co-director, provided mentorship, support and feedback on grant writing for the project as well.

“Support from the Wright Center has enabled me to build on existing relationships and create new collaborations to help advance our understanding and treatment of this complex disease,” Kron said.

Kenneth Ellenbogen, M.D., chair of the Pauley Heart Center’s Division of Cardiology, also provided significant support for Kron’s research.

“I would not be where I am today without Dr. Ellenbogen’s mentorship,” she said. “He has played an invaluable role in my research career.”

Gathering critical data

Kron, who last October was awarded an endowment fund through the Wright Center to further support her research, is joined in the study by Jennifer Jordan, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the VCU College of Engineering Department of Biomedical Engineering and director of the Cardiovascular MRI Core Lab at the Pauley Heart Center. Jordan’s research focuses on translational and clinical cardiovascular MRI techniques and cardiac magnetic resonance tissue characterization in patients who have received chemotherapy for breast cancer. For this study, she will be using her expertise in cardiac magnetic resonance to help assess inflammation in cardiac sarcoidosis and evaluate responses to treatment.

The Pauley Pilot Research Grant Program, which is made possible entirely by philanthropy, supports early stage research by physicians and scientists working to advance heart health. The program allows investigators to test novel ideas and gather enough data to apply for major research grants from institutions such as the NIH.

Kron plans to submit a proposal for external funding by February 2021.

“The results of this research will help me gather critical data to inform applications for larger grants later,” she said.

Let’s talk about sex: Gender differences in research and health care take center stage at annual Women’s Health Research Day

 

Gretchen Neigh, Ph.D., presents at Women’s Health Research Day. Photo courtesy Lisa Phipps.

No topic was off limits at Women’s Health Research Day on April 9, where more than 70 Virginia Commonwealth University faculty, students, staff and community members gathered to discuss how sex and gender differences impact bench-to-bedside research and clinical outcomes.

“There are fundamental differences between men and women that need to be considered in all levels of health care,” said Pam Dillon, Pharm.D., who is a research liaison at the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research. Dillon serves on the professional advisory board of the VCU Institute for Women’s Health, which has hosted the annual event for 15 years as a way to celebrate and promote research activities in women’s health at VCU.

Susan Kornstein, M.D., welcomes attendees to Women’s Health Research Day. Photo courtesy Lisa Phipps.

“The goal of Women’s Health Research Day is to bring together researchers from across the university and health system to showcase and share their work,” said VCU Institute for Women’s Health executive director Susan Kornstein, M.D.

The day included a plenary symposium, poster awards and a reception highlighting women’s health research by VCU faculty members and students.

“We have some work to do to move toward equitable representation of sex and gender in research,” said Gretchen Neigh, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at VCU School of Medicine.

Neigh, who serves as the director of translational research at the VCU Institute for Women’s Health, chaired the plenary symposium and presented on why sex matters in research. During her talk, she dispelled conventional excuses for not including women in clinical research and reviewed studies on sex and gender bias in medical school and basic science laboratory settings.

“Simply including women in your research team increases the likelihood that you will pay attention to sex and gender differences in your research outcomes,” Neigh said. She encouraged the audience to pay attention to sex within experimental designs and create diverse research and clinical teams to improve the odds of equity. “Sex and gender impact nearly everything,” she said. “If you interact with other humans on any level of the health care

continuum, you need to be aware of how sex and gender can impact health.”

Poster presentations focused on women’s health, as well as sex and gender differences. They were reviewed for research originality, scientific rigor, and women’s health relevance, with awards presented for posters in basic science, clinical and translational research, and community and public health research.

“The missions of the Wright Center and the VCU Institute for Women’s Health are similar,” said Dillon, who helped plan the conference and served as a judge for the poster competition. “The VCU Institute for Women’s Health is committed to training and supporting women in science, and the Wright Center’s research and training programs provide a strong foundation to help the institute with that mission.”

Poster awardees and VCU Institute of Women’s Health leadership. From left-to-right: Susan Kornstein, M.D., Zaneera Hassan, Candace C. Johnson, Hope Wolf, Albert Ksinan, Dace Svikis, Ph.D., Lisa Phipps, Ph.D., Pharm.D.

Congratulations to our Top Docs

Five Wright Center clinician-scientists were recognized as “top docs” in Richmond magazine‘s annual listing of leading physicians in the Richmond region. The below-listed physicians were chosen by their peers and provide a wide range of care in multiple specialties at VCU Health.

Congratulations to this year’s winners!

  • Director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., Addiction Medicine
  • Associate director Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., Cardiology
  • Network Capacity Core project lead David Cifu, M.D., Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
  • Hub Research Capacity Core co-investigator Judy Voynow, M.D., Pediatric Pulmonology
  • 2013 Endowment Fund recipient Anshu Gupta, M.D., Pediatric Endocrinology

VCU researcher leads study aimed at improving care for people with chronic conditions

Close-up Of Doctor Measuring Patients Blood Pressure With Stethoscope

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has awarded a nearly $2 million grant to the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine Department of Family Medicine and Population Health to test a model of care that aims to better connect primary care clinicians with community resources and health system services.

People who struggle with multiple chronic conditions often also have unmet social needs, unhealthy behaviors and other mental health challenges, said Alex Krist, M.D., a professor of family medicine in the School of Medicine who will lead the research funded by the grant.

“While primary care providers do their best to address the root causes of multiple chronic conditions, few medical practices can undertake a systematic approach without broader health system and coordinated community support,” Krist said.

The new care paradigm is intended to improve on conventional models, helping primary care providers better address the root causes of poor health.

“A sea change is occurring in which health systems and communities increasingly recognize the need to address underlying issues that contribute to multiple chronic conditions,” Krist said. “The health systems and community partners are experimenting with, and investing in, new models for connecting patients with needed services, but primary care clinicians, whose regular contact with patients make them more familiar with patients’ needs than large health systems and specialists, are often not included in the new systems.”

One in four Americans has multiple chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and depression. These conditions last for a year or more and require ongoing medical attention. That number rises to 3 in 4 Americans age 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Headshot of Alex Krist

As a family medicine physician in Northern Virginia, Krist observes firsthand the impact that underlying issues such as unmet social needs, unhealthy behaviors and mental health challenges can have on managing chronic conditions. He is also keenly aware of the challenges primary care physicians face in helping their patients address those issues.

“As a clinician, these are the types of things I see every day with my patients,” Krist said. He added that doctors frequently rely on medications, diagnostic tests and specialty referrals to manage chronic conditions rather than working toward resolving the underlying issues.

“The current model of care is not set up to seamlessly connect physicians with resources that will help resolve their patients’ problems,” Krist said. He hopes the proposed care model will help bridge that gap.

Krist, who is the co-director of community-engaged research at the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, will lead a research team that includes VCU investigators along with community partners and colleagues at the University of Colorado and University of Texas Health Science Center. The research was informed by a pilot grant awarded to Krist by the Wright Center, through which he and colleagues tested a social needs screening tool that will be used for the study.

For five years, the researchers, clinicians and community partners will work with patients with multiple chronic conditions from 60 primary care practices in the Richmond metropolitan region on a randomized, controlled clinical trial. The clinical trial includes developing individually tailored care plans and fostering connections between primary care practices and community resources.

“We are trying to see if addressing the root causes of poor health will do a better job of improving health than traditional medical care models,” Krist said. “It goes back to the concept that we think these root causes are critical drivers of health. Trying to address them better has much stronger potential for improving health than traditional means.

“We believe this study can show doctors a new way to help their patients,” Krist said. “Instead of just giving patients more pills to control chronic disease, doctors can find the root causes of poor health. With the support of health system and community programs, doctors and patients can address these root causes to truly promote health and well-being.”

Young researchers will further work in prenatal care, cancer immunotherapy and microRNA through career development program

From left to right: Mario Acunzo, M.D., Elizabeth Wolf, M.D., Guizhi (Julian) Zhu, Ph.D.

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

Virginia Commonwealth University this month welcomed three clinician researchers to a mentored career development program designed to prepare them for the health care challenges of the future.

Elizabeth Wolf, M.D., and Mario Acunzo, M.D., both from the VCU School of Medicine, and Guizhi (Julian) Zhu, Ph.D., from the VCU School of Pharmacy, have been named Clinical Research KL2 Scholars. The KL2 program provides early-career researchers with dedicated time to help their findings benefit human health more quickly, while becoming successful, independent translational scientists.

“There is a national need to increase the clinical and translational research workforce and prepare the future generation of research leaders to address imminent health care challenges,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “Through opportunities like the KL2 research program, VCU is leveraging its interdisciplinary strengths in clinical research and community engagement to make meaningful improvements in patient care.”

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Passion pays off: Sanyal to receive premier award in field of liver disease

By Polly Roberts
VCU School of Medicine

Headshot of Dr. Sanyal

In November 2018, Arun Sanyal, M.D., will accept the 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award from the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases. The award signifies 30 years of research including 17 continuous years of National Institutes of Health funding, the development of therapeutics reducing liver disease across the globe, and countless international leadership roles and awards.

“This is the premier award in the field of liver disease and Dr. Sanyal is most deserving,” says Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D. “His work is the definition of translational medicine. Through his extraordinary commitment to research, teaching and patient care, and to always finding a better way, he has improved the standard of care for liver disease around the world.” Read More

Interdisciplinary VCU research team overcomes obstacles to improve health for people with diabetes

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

At first, it seemed like it wasn’t going to happen. An interdisciplinary research team of Virginia Commonwealth University faculty members and students had applied for federal funding to create a virtual diabetes education program that would empower people living with diabetes to manage their disease, but their grant application was denied.

“We thought we were going to receive funding,” said Alex Krist, M.D., a family medicine professor at VCU School of Medicine. “At the last minute we didn’t, but Privia Medical Group offered to help us as part of their clinical mission.”

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Wright Center leadership and distinguished chairs honored at Investiture Dinner

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

Virginia Commonwealth University honored more than 50 faculty members who have recently been awarded endowed professorship and chair positions at the VCU Investiture Dinner, which was held on Sept. 27 at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Va.

“It is an honor to see this remarkable group of colleagues recognized for their work to advance our missions of education, patient care and discovery,” said VCU School of Medicine Dean Peter F. Buckley, M.D., who presided over the ceremony with VCU School of Business Dean Ed Grier.

Dr. Melissa Moeller, Dr. Frederick Moeller, Mary Macrina and Dr. Frank Macrina pose for a photo at the Investiture Dinner on Oct. 22
Left to right: Melissa Moeller, O.D.; Frederick G. Moeller, M.D.; Mary Macrina; Frank Macrina, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy Chris Ijams)

In addition to recognizing the recipients of endowed professorships and chairs, the event honors the donors whose generous contributions to the university made the positions possible. Donors sat among the faculty recipients at the event, where faculty members were formally invested and presented with medallions. Read More

Family medicine physician is sixth faculty member at VCU to be elected to the National Academy of Medicine

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

Alex Krist, M.D., a professor of family medicine in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, has been elected as a member of the National Academy of Medicine, considered one of the highest honors in the fields of medicine and health.

Krist, a practicing family medicine physician, teaches resident physicians at the VCU-Fairfax Family Medicine Residency and serves as vice chair of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent, volunteer panel of national experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine. He is the co-director of community-engaged research at the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, the only institution in Virginia to receive a Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health. The five-year, $21.5 million award is the largest NIH grant ever bestowed to VCU. It allows the center to support clinical research, integrate research and clinical practice and provide training to develop the clinical research workforce.

“I blend being a practicing family physician, teaching new physicians, conducting research and evaluating evidence to inform policy,” Krist said. “Each activity informs the other. For example, being a busy family physician helps shape my research to address the problems real-world patients and physicians face. Likewise, most of my research helps guide the steps I need to take to be a better physician.” Read More