Former Wright Center KL2 Mentored Career Development Scholar among 2019’s Blick Scholars

Dr. April Kimmel writes on a whiteboard and smiles at the camera

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

As a Wright Center KL2 Mentored Career Development Scholar, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine associate professor April Kimmel, Ph.D., researched HIV care delivery models and access to care in the South. Among her findings was the discovery that a third of the population she studied had to travel more than an hour to receive comprehensive HIV treatment

“My research is focused on improving equity in access to HIV care,” Kimmel said. “The KL2 award from the Wright Center supported dedicated time for me to pursue additional training and conduct critical foundational work related to my domestic research agenda. It set the stage for my professional development and career independence.”

The KL2 program provides early-career researchers with protected time to help their findings benefit human health more quickly. It also provides mentorship and career development opportunities to help researchers like Kimmel become successful, independent translational scientists.

After completing the three-year KL2 program in 2016, Kimmel submitted a grant application to the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities that was based upon her Wright Center-supported research. She was awarded a four-year R01 by NIMHD to expand her KL2 studies and examine the influence of structural barriers on the quality of HIV care and population health in the U.S. south. “The early career training supported by the KL2 has resulted in multiple extramural federal research grants and important contributions to knowledge on the role of structural barriers in HIV care in the U.S.,” Kimmel said.

Headshot of Dr. April Kimmel

In recognition of her achievements, the VCU Office of the Vice President for Health Sciences appointed Kimmel as one of four 2019 Blick Scholars. Created with a $2 million bequest from the George and Lavinia Blick Research Fund, the Blick Scholars Program endowment is awarded every four years to medical researchers on the MCV Campus. The award recognizes scholars with documented growth toward national prominence, a record of external research funding, and collaborative scholarship. “Rather than recognizing a specific project, the program acknowledges an overall trajectory of scholarship growth,” Kimmel said.

Through the Blick Scholars Program, Kimmel will receive an annual award of approximately $25,000 a year (based on market performance) to support her research for four years. She will apply the funding toward studying how structural barriers to HIV care – such as geographic accessibility and physicians payment rates – influence quality of care and how policy changes can improve inequities in the impact of the barriers on quality of care. Internationally, she will work toward projecting how different HIV clinical policies impact health outcomes and new HIV infections over time. She will also study the cost-effectiveness of various clinical policies. “My goal is to improve access to HIV care in very resource-limited settings,” she said.

VCU Clinical Research KL2 Scholar designs drug delivery systems to test nanovaccines for brain and skin cancer

Dr. Zhu wears a button-up shirt and looks at the camera in front of a computer.
Guizhi (Julian) Zhu, Ph.D.

While walking between meetings and the lab he maintains on the Virginia Commonwealth University MCV Campus, Wright Center Clinical Research KL2 Scholar Guizhi (Julian) Zhu, Ph.D., often crosses paths with cancer patients in the VCU Medical Center corridors. The encounters serve as daily inspiration for the VCU School of Pharmacy assistant professor.

“I sometimes feel helpless because I can’t do much for them at that moment other than saying some kind words,” Zhu said. “Those are the moments that help me focus on my research to potentially have an impact that can change or improve therapeutic outcomes for cancer patients.”

Zhu uses innovative drug delivery platforms to test the efficacy of novel immunotherapies for a variety of disease types, including skin, liver, brain, colorectal, and breast cancers. In addition to being appointed as a Clinical Research KL2 Scholar in 2018, he received a Wright Center Endowment Fund earlier this year and in August was among 18 VCU faculty members to receive a Presidential Research Quest Fund from the VCU Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation.

Leveraging an extensive background in engineering, chemistry, and pharmacology, Zhu leads a research team of six postdocs and graduate students, as well as multiple undergraduate students and visiting scholars. His team designs targeted drug delivery systems and develop cancer nanomedicines such as nucleic acid nanovaccines for enhanced therapeutic benefit. Nanovaccines dispense microscopic particles into the immune system to stimulate a response against cancer cells. They hold promise for treating disease more effectively than existing vaccines. Zhu tests a variety of nucleic acids, including immunomodulatory DNA/RNA, gene-expression modulation DNA/RNA, drug-encoding mRNA or gene-editing nucleic acids.

Zhu currently holds several grants to support studies on nanovaccines for glioma, a tumor of the brain and spinal cord, and melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Under the mentorship of VCU School of Medicine professor Steven Grossman, M.D., Ph.D., Zhu holds an American Cancer Society Institutional Research Grant to study the combination of immunotherapy and immuno-activating chemotherapy to treat melanoma. He is also a principal investigator on a VCU Massey Cancer Center pilot project that will explore the combination of a nanovaccine, immune re-energizing drugs and radiation therapy to treat glioma in mouse models.

“This project is really exciting because there isn’t a durably effective treatment option for glioma,” Zhu said. “We hope that by using radiation we can jump-start the tumor microenvironment to make immunotherapy more effective.”

Zhu grew up in China, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from Nankai University. He later moved to the U.S., where he earned a doctorate in medical science and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer nanomedicine at the University of Florida. He finished a second postdoctoral fellowship in cancer immunotherapy and bioimaging at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering in Maryland. During this time, Zhu collaborated in well-established laboratories to engineer and image nanomedicines. It was after this fellowship that he focused his research on cancer immunotherapies.

“The scientific combination of pharmaceutics and cancer research offers an ideal environment for me to continue my career at Massey,” he said.

Zhu has published more than 70 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including Nature Communications and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His publications have been cited by peers more than 4,500 times in the past five years. He is a member of the American Chemical Society, the Oligonucleotide Therapeutics Society and the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer. He received a Distinguished Scientist Award from the National Institutes of Health in 2017 and was awarded the Alan M. Gewirtz Memorial Fellowship by the Oligonucleotide Therapeutics Society in 2013.

He lives with his daughter and mother in Richmond, and the family awaits the arrival of his wife, who is close to finishing her doctoral degree in food science and nutrition in Maryland.

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

VCU and VSU researchers are studying marijuana use and the immune system

Dr. Keen (sitting) and Dr. Abbate (standing) pose for a photo in a laboratory
Larry Keen, Ph.D., and Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., in the lab. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

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

While working with HIV-positive patients at an infectious diseases clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, Larry Keen, Ph.D., met many people who used marijuana to treat pain. “They would roll a joint while on pain medication,” Keen said. “I was like, ‘You never worry about how the marijuana and pain meds are interacting?’ And they looked at me and were like, ‘Why?’”

The question seemed obvious to Keen, who was at the University of Florida on a postdoctoral fellowship funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. His research on immune function and neuropsychological performance among people in the African American community often converged toward a widely used but scarcely researched substance — marijuana.

“The study of marijuana use is still burgeoning, which is weird to me because it has been around for thousands of years,” he said.

After completing the fellowship, Keen joined Virginia State University in 2014 as an assistant professor of neuropsychology and psychoneuroimmunology, which is the study of the interaction between psychological processes and the body’s nervous and immune systems. He continued the marijuana research while leading the Psychoneuroimmunology of Risk and Disease Laboratory, where he noticed an association between marijuana use with leukocyte activity and cytokine production in the human body. Both parts of the immune system, leukocytes are white blood cells that help the body fight disease and cytokines are small proteins released by immune cells to help them communicate with one another. Keen found that both played a role in systemic inflammation, but the exact relationship between marijuana use and the immune system markers was not clear.

Energized by his small discoveries and eager to learn more, about two years into his tenure at VSU Keen started to apply for grant funding to explore further his area of research. However, much of the feedback he received took on a familiar tone.

“I got reviews back saying, ‘The guy is kind of cool, but he doesn’t have the resources at his university to carry the work out,’” he said. “They told me I needed collaborators, so I took that to heart and I started looking.”

Knowing that a major research university was just 30 miles north of the VSU campus, Keen started his search for collaborators on Virginia Commonwealth University’s website. “There was no one at VSU who was doing anything close to what I was doing with substance use, immune function and cognition,” he said. “I needed mentorship.”

Dr. Keen works in the laboratory while Dr. Abbate observes.
Abbate and Keen hope their partnership — created by an NIH grant — paves the way for further collaboration between VCU and VSU. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Browsing through VCU faculty profiles, Keen found cardiology professor Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D. Among other things, Abbate researches inflammation. Keen emailed and to his surprise, Abbate responded, inviting Keen to a meeting at the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research. The meeting focused on developing strategies for recruiting participants to a community-based substance-use disorder study.

“That was something I could help with,” Keen said.

A mentoring relationship soon developed between Abbate and Keen. Abbate, an associate director of the Wright Center, takes a special interest in mentoring students and junior faculty members. In February, he was presented with the inaugural Thames-Kontos Mentoring Award from the VCU School of Medicine and in May, he was given the VCU Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program Faculty Mentor Award. In 2016, the School of Medicine honored him with the Distinguished Mentor Award.

“He took an interest in mentoring me and was like, ‘What do we need to do to get you where you want to go?” Keen said.

The pair continued to collaborate and in late 2018 Abbate suggested that Keen apply for a Research Supplement to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research, which was awarded to the Wright Center by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. The Wright Center is eligible for the supplement as a member of the Clinical and Translational Science Awards Program, a national consortium of more than 50 research institutions that are accelerating the transformation of laboratory discoveries into treatments for patients.

“We mapped it out, bounced a couple ideas around for maybe a week, and then we started writing and that was it,” Keen said.

Keen was awarded the research supplement in May, enabling him to devote 75 percent of his time to training and research activities for two years.

“I have been at VSU for five years now and I am building my own thing there, but the research supplement gives me an opportunity to expand my expertise,” he said.

The supplement supports a pilot study that Keen will lead investigating the complex interplay among marijuana use, brain activity and the immune system. “This is the first pilot study I will be able to do where I can look at a complete picture of how chronic marijuana use affects a variety of bodily systems, including leukocyte and cytokine activity,” he said.

Dr. Keen (left) talks with Dr. Abbate (right) in the lab.
Keen, left, will lead an investigation into the complex interplay among marijuana use, brain activity and the immune system. “This is the first pilot study I will be able to do where I can look at a complete picture of how chronic marijuana use affects a variety of bodily systems,” he said. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Keen will conduct research at the Wright Center’s Collaborative Advanced Research Imaging facility with a sample of 50 people who live in the Richmond metropolitan area, half of whom have marijuana use disorder. In addition to working with faculty members and students from the MCV and Monroe Park campuses, Keen will enlist VSU graduate and undergraduate students to help with the research.

“Being able to partner with VCU in this way gives my students exposure to lab work and MRI research,” he said, adding that he hopes the partnership paves the way for further collaboration between the two institutions.

The supplement also provides Keen with opportunities to expand his expertise through coursework and career development activities. Over the next four semesters, Keen will enroll in VCU courses on topics including immunobiology, scientific integrity and responsible scientific conduct. He also will attend monthly Wright Center Clinical Research KL2 Scholar meetings.

He hopes the training program prepares him to be more of an independent investigator.

“This work is building me to the point where the NIH and other agencies will see me as an expert and will fund my research,” Keen said. “In order for me to be an independent investigator, I need to pay my dues. I need to publish, work on smaller developmental grants, and build a collaborative network that shows that I am supported. It is funny how having more of a team makes you more independent.”

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.”

Wright Center hosts Mentorship Academy aimed at creating a culture of mentorship at VCU

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

Dr. Nana-Sinkam points behind him to a screen with an infographic describing training opportunities
Wright Center KL2 program co-director Patrick Nana-Sinkam, M.D., presented on training and mentorship opportunities at the Wright Center during the 2019 Mentorship Academy. Photo by Allen Jones, VCU University Relations

At the Wright Center Mentorship Academy on May 3, nearly 50 faculty researchers from eight schools and colleges across the Virginia Commonwealth University MCV and Monroe Park Campuses gathered to discuss mentorship best practices.

“We set out to identify leadership from across the university to attend the Mentorship Academy, with the ultimate goal of using this as a starting point from which to foster a culture of mentorship at VCU,” said Wright Center KL2 program co-director Patrick Nana-Sinkam, M.D. The VCU School of Medicine professor and division chair organized the daylong conference at which attendees discussed ways to create and nurture a culture of mentorship within their schools, colleges and departments.

The workshop was facilitated by the Center for Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research, which is a nationally recognized leader in providing mentoring and training resources. The evidence-based program was developed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to help mentors develop skills for engaging in productive, culturally responsive research mentoring relationships that optimize the success of mentors and mentees. “We are here to help VCU faculty promote their own mentoring initiatives by thinking strategically about their mentoring practices and leveraging the experiences of their colleagues to learn from one another,” said program facilitator Kelly Diggs-Andrews, Ph.D.

Throughout the day, VCU faculty members learned skills and developed tools to help them build, increase and improve departmental mentorship infrastructure. “The culture of mentoring is complex,” said Gregory Triplett, Ph.D. The associate dean for graduate studies and research at the VCU College of Engineering attended hoping to learn mentoring strategies that he could bring back to his colleagues. “Workshops such as this provide important details for frameworks that we can further expand upon at our individual units,” he said.

While previous Mentorship Academies hosted by the Wright Center have included mostly trainees and junior faculty members, the 2019 event was targeted toward senior-level faculty members to try to increase institutional support for building a culture of mentorship at VCU. Attendees included 25 professors from VCU Schools of Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing, and Pharmacy, as well as the VCU Colleges of Engineering, Humanities and Sciences, and Health Professions, and VCU Life Sciences. Also in attendance were three School of Medicine department chairs, three members of the VCU Vice President for Research and Innovation’s Research Development Advisory Council, the School of Medicine’s associate chair for faculty development and the VCU senior vice provost for faculty affairs.

“In order to achieve our goal of fostering a culture of mentorship throughout VCU and VCU Health, we need buy in from senior leadership,” Nana-Sinkam said. “We want to help create a sustainable pool of senior faculty mentors and incentivize those mentors to create a community.”

A pyramid-shaped infographic describing mentorship and training opportunities available at the Wright Center
Wright Center training opportunities include mock study sections, grant writing seminars and biostatistics assistance.

The day included presentations and facilitated discussions on topics including maintaining effective communication, aligning expectations between mentors and mentees, addressing equity and inclusion, and promoting professional development and work-life integration.

In the afternoon, Nana-Sinkam and Wright Center Director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., presented on training opportunities within the Wright Center, including grant writing seminars, mock study sections, and assistance with bioinformatics and biostatistics. They highlighted the Wright Center’s newest program, Faculty Mentor Office Hours, where early career faculty can sign-up to meet with senior faculty mentors and discuss topics ranging from promotion and tenure to professional development and grant applications. They also discussed several research training programs administered by the Wright Center, including the Emerging Scholars program, Translational Science Scholars program and KL2 Program, which provide early career researchers with the opportunity to participate in mentored research and career development activities. They ended the presentation with a review of the research supplements that are provided by the Wright Center through the National Institutes of Health to promote diversity and re-entry into biomedical and health-related research professions.

“There is a huge need for leadership in the biomedical research space,” said Moeller, adding that the Wright Center programs he presented on are intended to address that shortage. “We need mentors who are equipped to train the next generation of researchers because without mentorship, junior faculty are not going to succeed.”

The program was made possible through the $21.5 million Clinical and Translational Science Award that the Wright Center received from the NIH in 2018. The largest NIH grant in VCU’s history allows the Wright Center to facilitate collaboration among diverse expertise within the university.

“The Wright Center’s mission is to translate basic science to having an impact on the health of the community and we need translational researchers in the pipeline to carry that mission forward,” Moeller said. “By training a new generation of interdisciplinary clinical and translational scholars, we can work toward ensuring our vision is sustained.”

Inaugural Virginia Clinical Research Conference inspires and strengthens the commonwealth’s clinical research enterprise

T.J. Sharpe addresses the crowd at the Virginia Clinical Research Conference
Metastatic melanoma survivor and clinical research participant T.J. Sharpe talks to Virginia Clinical Research Conference attendees about how clinical trials saved his life. Photo by Kevin Morley, VCU University Relations.

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

The ballroom inside the Hilton Hotel in downtown Richmond was standing room only on Friday morning, when more than 200 clinical research professionals from across the commonwealth gathered for the inaugural Virginia Clinical Research Conference.

“At the end of every clinical trial, there is a family waiting,” keynote speaker T.J. Sharpe said to the crowd of clinical and translational scientists who had assembled for the first conference aimed at strengthening the clinical research enterprise throughout the state. The conference, titled “Engagement: 2019,” was hosted by the Virginia Commonwealth University C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research with participation from VCU Health and the VCU Office of Research and Innovation.

“We designed the conference as an opportunity to work with academic medical centers across the state,” said Wright Center Director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D. “We wanted to identify ways to become more engaged with one another, as well as the communities we serve, as we work to design, test, and deliver innovative treatment options for patients.” In addition to VCU and VCU Health, attendees hailed from institutions including Eastern Virginia Medical School, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, Inova Health System and Bon Secours Health System.

In his presentation, Sharpe talked about how enrolling in a clinical trial saved his life. In August 2012 — just weeks after the birth of his second child — Sharpe was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, which is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. His physician gave him less than two years to live. “My purpose wasn’t to be a cancer survivor,” Sharpe said. “It was to be a dad, husband, brother and uncle, but to do that I needed to find a treatment that would give me a chance to fulfill my purpose.”

Knowing the five-year survival rate for metastatic melanoma hovered between 15 and 20 percent, Sharpe enrolled in two clinical trials to try to beat his long odds of survival. Now nearly seven years after the diagnosis and living cancer free, the Fort Lauderdale, Florida-resident has forged a career as a patient advocate and clinical trial experience expert, making it his life’s mission to share the value of clinical research with audiences around the country. “I’m dance dad now on Tuesdays, taking my daughter back-and-forth to dance,” Sharpe said. “These days, my wife and I take the kids on white water rafting trips and go hiking in Maine.”

Sharpe urged the crowd of clinical research professionals to think of him and countless others like him who depend on research they do every day. “My other purpose now is to bring my message to the clinical research world and implore those who have the ability to affect the lives of patients to do so,” he said. “It gave me hope to know there were researchers out there doing incredible work and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted the opportunity to help other people and make the world a better place through clinical trial participation.”

Wright Center clinical research KL2 scholar Mario Acunzo, Ph.D., speaks with Wright Center director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., about his research poster. Photo by Kevin Morley, VCU University Relations.

Throughout the daylong conference, attendees discussed how they can work together to help more people like Sharpe. At packed workshops centering on topics including how to engage the community, use big data and work more closely with investigational pharmacists, attendees shared perspectives and collaborated on new opportunities in clinical research.

“Uncovering your unconscious bias makes all the difference in the world as a clinical researcher,” said VCU School of Nursing associate professor Jo Lynne Robins, Ph.D. Robins was a panelist at an interactive workshop on engaging community partners in the practice of clinical research, where researchers and community health providers exchanged experiences and advice for how build better relationships. “The reason we do research is because we want to make a difference in patients’ lives,” Robins said. “We need to find common ground where we’re all committed to the same thing.”

At a breakout session on research ethics, Francis Macrina, Ph.D., posed a hypothesis that it should be possible to tailor a curriculum of responsible research conduct aimed at clinical and translational scientists. “We can and should begin to tailor responsible conduct of research curricula to specific audiences. One size doesn’t fit all anymore,” said the former vice president for research and innovation at VCU.

At the end of the conference, prizes were awarded for poster competition presentations. Thomas Corey Davis, Ph.D., who is an assistant professor and vice chair of clinical affairs in the VCU College of Health Professions Department of Nurse Anesthesia, was awarded the best poster in the category clinical research best practices/quality improvement/process innovations. Elizabeth Krieger, M.D., who is a fellow in the VCU School of Medicine Division of Hematology, Oncology and Palliative Care, was awarded the best poster in the category clinical science research.

“We hope for you to take these discussions beyond this conference,” said Wright Center associate director Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D. At a panel discussion wrapping up the day’s events, Abbate urged conference attendees to apply what they had learned at the conference to their daily research. “There is a person, a face and a smile behind everything that we do,” he said. “Clinical research is an instrument that allows beautiful stories to occur.”


Poster competition awardees:

Clinical research

best practices/quality improvement/process innovations:
Title:“Assessing a Novel Method to Reduce Anesthesia Machine Contamination: A Prospective, Observational Trial”

Authors: Thomas Corey Davis, Ph.D., CRNA; Beverly George-Gay, MSN, RN; Praveen Prasanna, M.D.; Emily M. Hill, Ph.D.; Brad Verhulst, Ph.D.; Chuck J. Biddle, Ph.D., CRNA

Clinical science research:
Title: “A Novel KIR-HLA Interaction Scoring System and its Effect on Transplantation Outcomes after HLA Matched Allogeneic Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation”

Authors: Elizabeth Krieger, M.D.; Roy Sabo, Ph.D.; Victoria Okhomina; Catherine Roberts, Ph.D.; Sunauz Moezzi; Caitlin Cain; Marieka Helou, M.D.; John McCarty, M.D., Rizwan Romee M.D.; Rehan Qayyum M.D. MHS; Christina Wiedl, D.O.; Amir Toor, M.D.

Job Opportunity Alert: Rising Scholar

The VCU School of Medicine Department of Internal Medicine has a unique opportunity for early-career physician-scientists who are interested in receiving dedicated training in clinical and translational research, while progressing in their academic career. The successful candidate must be a physician who is board certified or board eligible in internal medicine. The position will be for 24 months, with a start date of July 1. The program will include formal training through the Wright Center’s master’s degree in clinical and translational sciences. The Rising Scholar will be appointed as a clinical instructor of medicine, and will work 14-to-16 hours a week (averaged over four weeks) within the Hospitalist Night Medicine Program.

The position includes an excellent benefits package, competitive salary commensurate to the clinical load, and a stipend for a scholarly activities grant to support an approved research project. At the end of the program, trainees are expected to be competitive for an appointment to an assistant professor faculty member position and for KL2 or K23 National Institutes of Health training grants.

VCU School of Medicine has research opportunities in the following areas: allergy/immunology, cardiology, endocrinology, hepatology, hospital medicine, oncology and pulmonary/critical care.

The candidate should have demonstrated experience working in and fostering a diverse faculty, staff and student environment, or a commitment to do so as a faculty member at VCU.

For more information on available research areas of interest, and to apply online, please visit:

This position will remain open until filled. Virginia Commonwealth University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer. Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities are encouraged to apply. 

Clinician-scientist finds a balance between career and family

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

As a clinician-scientist, Sinem Esra Sahingur, D.D.S., Ph.D., teaches at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry, conducts research in the laboratory she manages in the school’s Department of Periodontics and the Philips Institute for Oral Health Research, and sees patients at VCU dental clinics.

“Balancing is so important,” the 47-year-old dentist said.

Sahingur has balanced a career in academia with raising two sons and accommodating her husband’s professional advancements along with her own. She was 40 weeks pregnant when she defended her doctoral dissertation at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Six days later, she delivered her second child. For more than three years prior, Sahingur worked on her thesis and completed a clinical residency program in periodontics in New York while raising her older son as her husband, Emre, worked in Richmond. After graduating, she interviewed for a faculty position at VCU, but with an infant and young child, she and Emre decided it would be better for the family if she took time off from work.

Sinem Esra Sahingur, D.D.S., Ph.D.

“We don’t have any family here, so I needed to stay at home,” she said.

In 2007, before her younger son’s third birthday, VCU contacted Sahingur asking if she was ready to join the dental school faculty. “I said yes,” she said. “They were very understanding. They asked, ‘Do you want to start part time?’ And I said, ‘No, I think we are good now.’”

Sahingur was hired to contribute to the school’s research enterprise, with additional responsibilities as a faculty member and clinician also competing for her time. Like many women who take time off from work to care for their family, she felt pressured to excel when she returned to the workforce.

Now a full-time, tenured professor with more than $5 million in funding to her name, Sahingur’s academic and professional achievements distinguish her as an exceptional faculty member. With the help of institutional, federal and philanthropic funding, she has obtained National Institutes of Health awards, contributed to academic journal publications and presented at conferences around the world.

She hopes to inspire other women to pursue their career goals in the same way. “If you need some time off to take care of your family, do it,” she said. “You can always start where you left off. It may not be as easy as if you had started earlier, but if you are determined and focused, you can catch up.”

Predestined for academia

A native of Istanbul, Sahingur’s earliest childhood memories are of her father, a physician-scientist at Istanbul University, coming home with stories about his students, patients and fellow researchers.

“I grew up surrounded by academicians,” she said. “It was part of my life.”

Sahingur’s father died when she was 11, leaving her with a desire to continue his legacy. “I always knew I would pursue a career in research and medicine,” she said.

At VCU, she has focused on clarifying the links between gum disease and systemic health issues. She is especially interested in preventing and curing periodontitis, a disease that results from interactions between pathogens in the gums and the body’s immune response.

Periodontal diseases are chronic inflammatory conditions that affect the structures around the teeth. They generally are categorized as either gingivitis or periodontitis. Gingivitis, the mildest form, presents as inflammation of the gums without bone or tissue loss. It can be prevented by adequate home care and regular dental exams. Periodontitis is the progression of the inflammation into the deeper tooth-supporting tissue. If left untreated, it results in destruction of bone and soft tissue, eventually leading to tooth loss.

“I look at how inflammation progresses through the body and try to identify therapeutic targets to reduce the inflammation,” Sahingur said. Specifically, her research team is attempting to characterize the key regulators of inflammation with the ultimate goal of discovering better therapeutics to treat periodontitis.

Nearly half of all adults in the United States suffer from periodontal disease and almost 10 percent of that group exhibits severe forms of the disease. Chronic oral inflammation can raise the risk for several life-threatening conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, pregnancy complications, arthritis and cancer. Sahingur aims to discover a treatment that could improve the lives of millions.

“As a clinician, I get to experience the benefits of research firsthand, and I would like for my work to have a broad impact on improving overall health,” Sahingur said. “As a clinician-scientist, I am able to focus my research toward projects that will translate to better clinical care.”

Hard work and a little help

In 2013, Sahingur was an inaugural awardee of the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research’s endowment fund. The Wright Center and the VCU Office of the Vice President for Health Sciences created the fund to support meritorious pilot and feasibility research.

That same year, Sahingur was awarded a KL2 scholarship through the Wright Center. Two years later, she was awarded a $1.9 million NIH grant for five years to continue her research, making her the first VCU KL2 scholarship recipient to receive a Research Project Grant.

Sinem Esra Sahingur flanked by VCU School of Dentistry postgraduate students.
Sinem Esra Sahingur, middle, flanked by VCU School of Dentistry postgraduate students. (Photo courtesy of Sinem Esra Sahingur)

“The KL2 scholarship and endowment fund were tremendously helpful because they gave me the time and money I needed to be involved more with research,” she said. “In addition, being part of the Wright Center enabled me to build lasting relationships with colleagues from different disciplines.”

Paying it forward

Sahingur intends for her research in oral health to improve the lives of patients beyond the dental clinic.

“Research shows that poor oral health does not only lead to tooth loss, but also has a negative impact on different parts of the body and ultimately quality of life,” she said. “As we move to a new era of precision medicine which aims to personalize treatments, it will be important to integrate oral health as part of overall health to generate more effective preventive and treatment options and better serve our patients.”

While developing her research program, Sahingur pursued interdisciplinary collaborations with colleagues whose research related to the systemic health effects of oral health. The collaborations led to peer-reviewed publications that reported on topics ranging from the effects of newly emerged smoking products to the effects of periodontitis on conditions such as cirrhosis, oral cancer and preterm birth.

“Future research success and translation to the clinics will only be possible through interdisciplinary projects,” Sahingur said. “My goal is to build on the studies we have already started and look for more opportunities to bridge the gap between dental and medical professions.”

Sahingur is on track to achieve her goal. In June, she received a second NIH grant of nearly $2 million to further her research.

“Dr. Sahingur is a vital member of the School of Dentistry’s research enterprise,” said the school’s dean, David C. Sarrett, D.M.D. “During her time at VCU, she has developed a national and international reputation as a dental researcher and clinician-scientist. We are proud to have her as a member of our faculty.”

Sarrett recognized Sahingur’s achievements in September with the Dean’s Faculty Excellence Award for Research. The award came on the heels of a string of laurels last year, including the VCU Office of Research and Innovation’s Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award in April and the university’s Women in Science, Medicine and Dentistry Professional Achievement Award in May.

Sahingur with David Sarrett, dean of the School of Dentistry.
Sahingur with David Sarrett, dean of the School of Dentistry. (Photo courtesy of University Relations)

While her focus has remained on research, Sahingur has devoted much of her time to supporting the next generation of clinicians and scientists by teaching, directing courses and serving as a mentor for faculty and students. For the past three years, she also has been involved in developing the school’s recently launched Ph.D. program in oral health research.

“Although Dr. Sahingur has an abundance of responsibilities as a researcher, professor and periodontist, she never forgets about her mentees,” said Nitika Gupta, a senior biology student who worked in Sahingur’s lab and nominated her for the Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award last year.

Gupta plans to attend the University of Pennsylvania School Of Dental Medicine in the fall to pursue a doctorate in dental medicine.

“Dr. Sahingur invested her time in enhancing my education,” Gupta said. “My passion for molecular and cellular biology and biochemistry grew exponentially while working in her lab. I hope to inspire others the way she inspired me.”

A delicate balance

Not long after Sahingur started at VCU, Emre was offered a job in Washington and the family was again separated. For nearly a decade, she lived in Richmond with her two sons while Emre lived in Washington. “He was there during the weekdays and I was here taking care of the children while I worked,” she said. Two years ago, her older son started college and Sahingurmoved with her younger son, who is now 14, to Washington. She commutes two hours each way to work in Richmond.

“As women, we make sacrifices to balance our commitments to our families with our professional aspirations,” she said.

So far, the sacrifices have paid off, Sahingur said.

“I am dedicated to my family and my work,” she said. “Life is full of surprises and often steers us in unexpected directions. The most important thing is not to give up on our ambitions and direct our positive energy to continue chasing the things that fulfill us.”

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