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.”

Second Opportunities for Lasting Change

Dr. Moeller stands with his arms crossed in front of the VCU Medical Center Emergency Department entrance. He is wearing a white lab coat.
Wright Center Director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., is the principal investigator on a clinical trial that is initiating long-term care for opioid overdose survivors inside emergency departments. Photo: Kevin Schindler

This story originally appeared in the MCV Foundation‘s Next magazine. To read the full story and other articles about life-changing innovations occurring on the MCV Campus, click here

Those who survive an opioid overdose usually do so because they’re found in varying states of consciousness by family members, friends, caregivers or first responders before their breathing stops completely.

These survivors gain an additional opportunity at life, but oftentimes, because of the nature of their illness, they can’t use their new opportunities for change and recovery.

F. Gerard “Gerry” Moeller, M.D., director of the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, began contemplating these missed opportunities one day in 2017 after hearing from colleagues in the VCU Health Emergency Department.

“They came to me and said they were seeing overdose patients time and time again, and they felt like they just weren’t accomplishing anything,” Dr. Moeller said. “They were reviving the patients, but then the survivors weren’t getting into long-term treatment.”

Dr. Moeller, who is internationally known for his translational research on impulsivity and addictions, is keenly aware of the importance long-term treatment plays in pulling people out of a deadly spiral like the one his colleagues described to him, and he wanted to help.

His preliminary data showed that opioid overdose visits to the VCU Health Emergency Department went from approximately 270 in 2015 to more than 650 in 2017, and from all of those visits, as many as one in five patients experienced a repeat overdose or died within 12 months of their initial overdose.

Dr. Moeller knew these numbers demanded action toward finding the reason survivors weren’t getting the help they needed, and, most importantly, toward identifying a new approach to helping the survivors avail the opportunities they’d been given for a new life.

Why are survivors not getting help?

After an overdose victim arrives at the emergency department, he or she is stabilized, monitored for some time and then referred to a long-term outpatient facility where appropriate follow-up treatment, usually for addiction, can begin.

Dr. Moeller believes this referral is the critical moment in the treatment paradigm that can and should be changed. That’s because the overdose medication naloxone is very effective at saving lives, but it also causes acute opioid withdrawal, leading to nausea, vomiting, sweating, diarrhea, chills, cravings, impulsivity and poor decision-making.

“One of the behavioral definitions of impulsivity is the lack of ability to delay your gratification,” Dr. Moeller said. “So, if you’re in withdrawal, you have all these symptoms and you wish you were dead. You realize that when you walk out the door of the hospital you can get something that will make you feel better — it’s heroin, or it’s oxycodone, or it’s a pill. Even though you know you just almost died from an overdose, the threat of that happening again is in the future.”

Because of this impulsivity, which is often amplified because of the lifesaving medication, many patients never go to clinics when they’re referred for long-term treatment, opting instead to seek an immediate fix.

What can be changed to better encourage long-term care?

Instead of referring overdose survivors, who are likely experiencing acute withdrawal, to long-term care after they leave the emergency department, Dr. Moeller is testing the effectiveness of initiating long-term treatment before the survivors ever leave the hospital. The goal here is to counteract withdrawal symptoms and reduce impulsivity.

For those who agree to participate, Dr. Moeller’s team, working inside the emergency department, makes contact and provides a medication called buprenorphine that reverses the withdrawal symptoms. Patients are then given a referral within 72 hours to the outpatient clinic, where they continue medication and counseling for addictions.

In addition to administering buprenorphine as early as possible before survivors leave the hospital, the long-term care component of the study is vitally important to the recovery of survivors. In Richmond, referrals to long-term outpatient care guide participants to the VCU Health MOTIVATE Clinic, where social workers, nurses and physicians monitor patients’ progress weekly, provide behavioral counseling sessions in individual and group settings, and administer buprenorphine monthly.

Improving the likelihood that overdose victims reach this long-term component of care is essential, Dr. Moeller said. “Addiction really is a chronic medical disorder. Like diabetes and hypertension, a one-time treatment is not going to solve the problem, so patients need chronic medication and behavioral treatments like group therapy to help them with lifestyle changes.”

Dr. Moeller will serve as principal investigator on the trial and will work with Robert Lipsky, Ph.D., director of translational research in the Department of Neurosciences at Inova Fairfax Hospital, and Warren Bickel, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and director of the Addiction Recovery Research Center at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. The trial is funded in part by a $500,000 Virginia Catalyst grant from the Virginia Biosciences Health Research Corporation.

If the results show what Dr. Moeller expects, which is a significant drop in repeat overdose and death rates compared to previous data, this trial will establish a new paradigm for treatment of patients after opioid overdose that can be utilized nationally to help survivors get the help they need before it’s too late.

The MCV Foundation encourages and stewards gifts to support research like Dr. Moeller’s that fight all types of diseases. If you’re interested in learning about the tools the Foundation has available to use in making those gifts, visit their giving page.

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.”

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.”

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.

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

Q&A with Wright Center researcher Brian A. Taylor, Ph.D.

Photo courtesy Dan Wagner, VCU College of Engineering

By Emi Endo
VCU College of Engineering

A medical imaging physicist, Brian A. Taylor, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the VCU Department of Biomedical Engineering and a researcher at the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research.

1. What are you working on right now?

I’m working on innovative ways to measure brain function and structure with magnetic resonance imaging. As an MRI physicist, I design unique scans to noninvasively image tissues or measure physiological mechanisms in the human body. This can include measuring brain activity during mental tasks, visualizing cortical and white matter structures and measuring the quantity of neurotransmitters in different regions of the brain. We are particularly interested in the effects of substance use on the brain and how addiction drives the continuing use of potentially harmful substances like opioids, cocaine and alcohol.

2. What do you hope to achieve with this research?

By measuring differences between a person who is addicted to harmful substances and someone who is not, we can see which parts of the brain are driving addictive behavior and tailor treatments based on the data we collect. In addition, we can see how treatments for substance use are working in restoring the person’s function to what we see in people who are not addicted to drugs or alcohol.

3. How will this research make a difference?

Drug and alcohol use, particularly opioid use, are at epidemic levels in the U.S. Here, we have the opportunity to provide high-quality imaging-based research to help our VCU and VCU Health colleagues who are researching drug use by giving them important data to help them investigate and find the best treatments. VCU has an astounding collaborative environment with the VCU Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies and the Collaborative Advanced Research Imaging facility that houses a research-dedicated MRI system. Having CARI here helps tremendously in getting the data we need to investigate several conditions including addiction, liver disease and heart disease.

4. Tell us about how you are investigating this.

We use two main techniques: functional MRI and magnetic resonance spectroscopy. In fMRI, when part of the brain is activated — by a mental or physical task, or even at rest — the exchange of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood in addition to blood flow changes can be measured. This can then be processed to image areas of activation in the brain. We can also use this to measure how different regions of the brain communicate with each other over a period of time. In MRS, we can measure the amount of certain metabolites or neurotransmitters in the brain. We are particularly interested in the neurotransmitters glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid, as they are usually altered with drug and alcohol use.

5. What’s the biggest challenge right now?

When people usually think of MRI, it is of a radiologist viewing a scan in order to make a diagnosis. While this is certainly true, there is an abundance of quantitative data that can come from these scans. This quantitative approach requires a dedicated team to carefully process gigabyte-sized data sets for each participant scanned. This can be anything from looking at changes in cerebral blood flow, visualizing white matter tracts or even measuring the amount of fat in the liver in chronic alcohol use. While it is a challenge and takes time to process a lot of data, it is very rewarding and fun to come up with new ways to measure things inside the body in a way that couldn’t be done before.

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.”

Three reasons to attend the inaugural Virginia Clinical Research Conference

On April 12 clinical research professionals from across the state will convene at the Virginia Clinical Research Conference, Virginia’s first statewide conference that is entirely focused on clinical research.

The conference, titled Engagement 2019, is focused on involving stakeholders (patients, families, communities, clinical providers, and research team members) in the planning and conduct of clinical research. Throughout the day, clinical research experts from institutions including Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia and Eastern Virginia Medical School will present on topics ranging from engaging community members in clinical research planning to engaging clinical researchers in research ethics education.

While there are countless reasons for anyone who is interested in clinical research to attend, conference organizers have narrowed it down to three key benefits:

 

  1. Discover opportunities for collaboration

At Engagement 2019, clinical research coordinators, investigators and clinicians will share perspectives, discuss best practices, and collaborate on new opportunities in clinical research. Do you have an idea for a clinical trial, but don’t have access the resources or expertise needed to get it off the ground? The key to turning your idea into action may be at the Virginia Clinical Research Conference.

 

  1. Be inspired

 The conference kicks off with a keynote address by stage 4 melanoma patient T.J. Sharpe, who has undergone six surgeries and four immunotherapy treatments across two clinical trials since being diagnosed in August 2012 with melanoma tumors in multiple organs. The writer, inspirational speaker and consultant to the biopharma and clinical research industries brings a message of hope from the perspective of a patient who is on the road toward overcoming melanoma’s long odds.

 

  1. Advance your career 

More than 200 people from a wide variety of touch-points in the clinical research profession are expected to attend the conference, offering numerous opportunities to network and strengthen the clinical research enterprise throughout the state. In addition to a full day of concurrent presentations, the conference includes networking breaks and research poster viewing opportunities, providing a unique opportunity for clinical research professionals from disparate backgrounds to meet, connect and collaborate on future endeavors.