Philanthropist and businessman C. Kenneth Wright, who helped transform VCU, dies

Kenneth Wright receives honorary doctorate
C. Kenneth Wright the day he received his honorary doctorate from VCU. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

C. Kenneth Wright, a longtime businessman and philanthropist whose generous giving is credited with helping to build today’s Virginia Commonwealth University, died this week. He was 94.

Wright and his late wife, Dianne, who died in 2013, were dedicated supporters of VCU and the VCU Health System, including the VCU Massey Cancer Center. Their gifts were numerous and consequential, and they volunteered their time and expertise to the university and health system, said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D.

Wright “will never know how much he impacted the lives of literally thousands of people,” Rao said.

“He understood better than most how much VCU means to Virginia,” Rao said. “He left an indelible mark on our university and our health system and, most importantly, on those we serve together. We are forever grateful for his legacy of service and his vision for a better human experience for everyone. He was so much like our students: creative, focused, optimistic, inclusive, hard-working, determined and always committed to the highest standards. We will miss him dearly.”

Marsha Rappley, M.D., VCU senior vice president for health sciences and VCU Health System CEO, said, “Mr. Wright had a spirit of giving that left me personally in awe. He believed that education, science, medicine and engineering will change lives for the better. And he dedicated himself to that.”

Dr. Moeller stands behind Mr. Wright, who is sitting

Wright served as a trustee of the VCU College of Engineering Foundation and was on the College of Engineering Industrial Advisory Council. The Wrights were among the university’s largest donors, contributing more than $50 million.

In 1999, the Wrights donated the building that had been the headquarters of Kenneth Wright’s business and was later renovated to become the home of the VCU Brandcenter. The Wrights created the Dianne Harris Wright Professorship for Gynecologic Oncology Research; created a cardiology scholars endowment within the School of Medicine; gave the initial gift to create the Eugene P. Trani Scholars Program, which provides support to exceptional undergraduate applicants; and made a $10.5 million gift to the School of Engineering Foundation that was recognized in the naming of the microelectronics lab as the C. Kenneth and Dianne Harris Wright Virginia Microelectronics Center.

Wright and the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Foundation made a $16 million gift in 2015 to name the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, which fosters collaborative science and health care research among VCU investigators and students. The gift established six C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Distinguished Chairs in Clinical and Translational Research and the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Physician-Scientist Scholars program. The Wright Center became the first federally funded center of its kind in Virginia and is renowned nationally for turning groundbreaking science into lifesaving care.

“I was very sad to hear of the passing of Mr. Wright,” said Wright Center director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D. “He was amazing in his support of clinical research at VCU. With his original gift of $16 million that he provided to support the newly named C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, he showcased the importance of the mission of the Wright Center: to translate basic research into a positive impact on the health of our community. In a large measure because of his support we were able to renew our Clinical and Translational Science Award last year, being one of only 58 funded centers across the U.S.

“On a more personal level, I will miss Mr. Wright’s genuinely positive and down-to-earth attitude,” Moeller said. “He was always excited about the research taking place at the Wright Center and VCU and happy he could support our mission.”

A $5 million gift in 2017 established the Wright Engineering Access Scholarship Program, a flagship scholarship program to provide need- and merit-based awards to a broad base of College of Engineering students.

“We are deeply saddened by this loss and send our heartfelt condolences to Ken Wright’s family and his large community of friends,” said Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Jr. Dean of the College of Engineering. “His spirit will continue to live through our students and hundreds of future students who will be able to pursue their dreams because of the C. Kenneth Wright Engineering Access Scholarship program he founded at the VCU College of Engineering. Ken’s engaging manner and desire to create meaningful programs that help others will be honored across our campus. He valued the time he spent with our students and we valued the time we spent with him. He will indeed be missed.”

Wright was the president and owner of Wright Properties and Wright Investments. He also was the retired chairman of Rent-A-Car Company, Inc., an Avis franchise that he operated for more than 45 years.

In 2011, VCU recognized Wright with its highest award when it presented him with an honorary doctorate. At the ceremony, Rao said Wright was a key figure in VCU’s transformation in the previous two decades, calling him “one of the architects — the man who helped design our future.” Wright said he had received many awards during the course of his lengthy business career but “nothing on the level that I’m receiving today.”

VCU Wright Center-funded study finds family medicine physicians often inaccurately estimate patients’ geographic footprint

A doctor in a white lab coat talks with a patient.

Geographic locations affect social determinants of health ranging from access to nutritious foods to housing and education quality, but many family medicine physicians cannot accurately estimate where their patients live. In a study published in the Annals of Family Medicine in August, Virginia Commonwealth University researchers found that family medicine physicians overestimated the geographic footprint of their practice by 112 percent on average, or 166 miles. In other words, the physicians perceived their patients were more widely distributed in the region than they actually were.

“The intention of the study was to gain a better understanding of patients’ social determinants of health risks based on where they lived,” said Alex Krist, M.D., study co-investigator and professor of family medicine at the VCU School of Medicine. The study was funded through a pilot grant from the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, where Krist serves as the co-director of community-engaged research. “We found that patients who come from more disadvantaged communities were less likely to get the care they needed,” he said.

Understanding the communities they serve is a critical first step for physicians to implement a more community-oriented approach to care, according to study co-investigator Winston Liaw, M.D., chair of the Department of Health Systems and Population Health Sciences at the University of Houston College of Medicine. Prior to joining the University of Houston, Liaw served as faculty at the VCU School of Medicine.

“The idea of thinking about where patients live is radical because we’re not trained to ask for that information,” Liaw said, adding that he believes the lack of geospatial awareness among physicians leaves clinicians feeling unprepared and communities underserved. “We need to get providers to integrate geography into their practice data and get them thinking about the health needs of specific communities.”

To address this gap, more practices are moving services out of the clinic and into the community. The changing care model makes it even more vital for clinicians to understand a community’s needs so that they can identify patients who need additional care, engage potential community partners and consider novel community-based interventions, the study authors argue.

Liaw further contends that information about the health challenges faced by specific communities should be integrated into electronic health records and used to develop strategic interventions.

“If I wanted to push a diabetic educator into the community, for example, then I need to know where to put them,” he said. “I need to know the neighborhoods my clinic serves and more specifically, where diabetic patients are living. Otherwise, we’re just guessing.”

Krist said the study quantitatively reinforced what he has observed through interactions with patients at the family medicine clinic where he practices in Northern Virginia.

“It is important for a doctor to know where their patient comes from,” he said. “This study revealed that doctors don’t understand the footprint of where their patients came from as well as they thought.”

The gift that keeps on giving

Scientists from the Wright Center stand out among competitors for National Institutes of Health funding, thanks to significant donor support

By Brelyn Powell
VCU Office of Development and Alumni Relations

Electronic cigarette devices are often touted as a safer alternative for smokers looking to quit. Recreational use of e-cigarettes has become more common, especially among teenagers and young adults, since the devices entered the market in 2007. The long-term health effects of e-cigarette use have yet to be determined, and researchers are playing a critical role in shaping the public discourse around how to adequately regulate e-cigarette products.

Among these researchers is Rene Olivares-Navarrete, D.D.S., Ph.D., assistant professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering. As a biomedical engineer, Olivares-Navarrete takes a cross-disciplinary approach to his research to improve treatments for patients with craniofacial and orthopaedic issues. Most recently, he conducted a study that demonstrated for the first time that e-cigarette use during pregnancy can cause birth defects of the oral cavity and face.

“So far, most e-cigarette research has focused on diseases like cancer and pulmonary disease because those are classically associated with smoking. But most e-cigarette users are young, and more immediate concerns for that age group are growth, development and reproductive health,” Olivares-Navarrete says. “In many cases, women who use e-cigarettes during pregnancy have been told by doctors that the devices are healthier than conventional cigarettes. We want people to know what the consequences may be so that they can make informed choices about using these products.”

Headshot of Dr. Olivares-Navarrete wearing a black sweater over a blue collared shirt
Rene Olivares-Navarrete

In the study, frog embryos exposed to mixtures of saline and various e-cigarette vapors developed craniofacial defects such as cleft palates. The next step, Olivares-Navarrete says, is to determine exactly which elements of the vapor cause the defects.


Supporting cross-disciplinary research like Olivares-Navarrete’s is one of the primary goals of VCU’s C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research. Established in 2007, the center provides resources to encourage collaboration among VCU investigators and students, community partners and government organizations to advance the scientific study of human health.

The Wright Center offers a range of services, such as training for early-career investigators and consulting to help with planning, implementing, conducting and disseminating research, which are open to researchers from any department or school within the university. The center also has several mechanisms in place to provide grant funding for research projects.

Last fall, Olivares-Navarrete received a grant from the Wright Center to fund his current research to pinpoint how e-cigarette vapor causes craniofacial defects. Olivares-Navarrete has received grant funding from the National Institutes of Health for some of his e-cigarette research, but federal funding is increasingly difficult to secure, he says.

“NIH funding is extremely competitive,” he explains. “Sometimes the difference between your proposal and another is the amount of institutional support you have behind you.”

Wright Center Director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., says that funding from within a researcher’s institution, such as the grant that Olivares-Navarrete received from the center, indicates the strong institutional support that NIH reviewers often look for when awarding grant funding.

“Because of various cuts to the federal budget, the NIH wants to know that their funding will build on a foundation of support that is already there,” he says.

The Wright Center can provide this level of support for its researchers, Moeller says, thanks in part to private philanthropy from donors such as C. Kenneth Wright, whose first gift to the center, of $16 million, named it in 2015. With the gift from his foundation, Wright enhanced the center’s abilities to recruit distinguished researchers from around the country and to prepare top students for careers in research by establishing six C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Distinguished Chairs in Clinical and Translational Research and the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Physician-Scientist Scholars Program, named for Wright and his late wife, Dianne. In 2018, he renewed his support with a $5 million gift to help the center expand its biomedical informatics program.

Mr. Wright stands with Dr. Moeller. Mr. Wright is wearing a tweed jacket and red collared shirt. Dr. Moeller is wearing a white dress shirt and light blue tie.
Mr. Ken Wright stands with F. Gerard “Gerry” Moeller, M.D., at the new 6,000-square-foot research space dedicated to biomedical informatics at VCU. Photo by Eric Peters

The Wrights developed close relationships with many VCU Health care providers while Dianne received treatment for ovarian cancer at VCU Massey Cancer Center. Since her death in 2013, Wright has honored her memory by supporting research efforts across the university.

“Dianne lived for 12 years after she was advised she had cancer, and she didn’t change her lifestyle one bit,” Wright says, adding that his ultimate hope is that his support will lead to advancements that let other patients thrive despite their illness. “We traveled all over the world in that time. She didn’t waste those years. I know she would be glad that I’m doing this.”


The biggest NIH award the Wright Center has received so far is a five-year, $21.5 million Clinical and Translational Science Award from the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences in May 2018. The largest NIH grant ever awarded to VCU, it will provide the funding the Wright Center needs to support groundbreaking research like Olivares-Navarrete’s and unite academic, community and industry partners to improve community health and health care.

Just as his contributions help researchers like Olivares-Navarrete earn NIH funding, Wright’s philanthropic investments in the center’s work were, at least partially, responsible for helping VCU secure the historic grant, Moeller says.

“In getting this award, we joined a consortium of 58 research institutions, and very few of those hubs have the kind of philanthropy that Mr. Wright has provided for us,” Moeller says.

Over the course of his relationship with VCU, Wright’s giving has had a transformational impact throughout VCU.

“The Wrights came to VCU with a big vision, a strong resolve to accomplish that vision and a deep commitment to using their talents and resources to change the world,” VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said of the couple in 2015. “Through their deep generosity, Dianne and Ken have forever changed our great university. We owe them a debt of gratitude for investing so much into VCU and, more importantly, its people.”

To learn more about the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, contact Brian S. Thomas, vice president and chief development officer at the MCV Foundation, at (804) 828-0067 or


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

A VCU researcher is exploring the relationship between sleep and how the mind works

Dr. Agyemang smiles in the breezeway of a hospital wearing an orange and red patterned dress.
Agyemang is measuring the physiological aspects of sleep quality in service members and veterans who have sustained mild traumatic brain injuries or concussions. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

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

While completing a doctorate in clinical psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, Amma Agyemang, Ph.D., developed an interest in the effects that chronic medical conditions have on sleep and cognitive functioning. For her dissertation, she tested an online therapy for insomnia among people who were newly diagnosed with cancer.

“One of the key weaknesses of the study was that we didn’t have objective data,” she said of the intervention that measured sleep quality subjectively through diaries and a self-reported questionnaire. “I always wanted to do a study that measures sleep objectively.”

In May, Agyemang got her chance to pursue that long-held interest through a Research Supplement to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research, which was awarded to the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. The funding allows Agyemang to devote 75 percent of her time to training and research activities for two years.

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. VCU received the $21.5 million award in May 2018.

“An expanded and diverse workforce is essential to inspire relevance and innovation in clinical and translational science,” said Wright Center Director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., adding that the Wright Center is committed to enhancing the diversity of the translational workforce through mentoring, training and funding opportunities.

Dr. Agyemang holds the motion biosensor watch
To conduct her research into the relationship between sleep and cognitive function, Amma Agyemang will outfit participants with a motion biosensor watch for one month. The watch will collect data by monitoring their rest and activity cycles — a noninvasive method of monitoring known as actigraphy. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Agyemang, who is originally from Ghana, joined the VCU School of Medicine Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in August 2017 as an assistant professor. The 34-year-old researcher applies her training in clinical psychology and public health toward supporting the Chronic Effects of Neurotrauma Consortium, a VCU-led multisite research study of service members and veterans who have sustained mild traumatic brain injuries or concussions.

Agyemang’s research is aimed at characterizing sleep disruptions and measuring the relationship between sleep and cognitive functioning in individuals with mild traumatic brain injuries. She is also interested in developing interventions and clinical tools to address sleep and cognitive difficulties.

“I’m hoping we can find that sleep is a huge contributor to overall cognitive functioning and that, if we can change it, then people’s thinking and memory will improve,” she said.

To conduct her research, Agyemang will leverage the ongoing CENC study, which has gathered more than 1,500 individuals who undergo a comprehensive evaluation including diagnostic interviews, symptom and quality-of-life questionnaires, neurocognitive testing and neuroimaging. The supplement will enable Agyemang to recruit participants from the Richmond cohort to participate in her research. Participants will wear a motion biosensor watch for one month, and the watch will collect data by monitoring their rest and activity cycles — a noninvasive method of monitoring known as actigraphy.

“With the support from the Diversity in Health-Related Research supplement, I’ll be able to just focus on getting participants’ objective sleep data through actigraphy, and we’ll have the cognitive data because that already has to be collected as part of CENC, so it is a very low participant burden study,” Agyemang said.

In the course of two years Agyemang hopes to recruit approximately 100 research participants. The biosensor will objectively measure physiological aspects of sleep quality. Combined with the information collected through the CENC study, the data produced from the motion biosensor watch will allow Agyemang to objectively assess if people who have poor sleep also have poor cognitive functioning.

“It is a great opportunity for me as a junior faculty member to get funding for my career development,” Agyemang said, adding that she is interested in applying for NIH funding and expects that the work she does through the supplement will provide the groundwork she needs to secure that funding in the future.

“The work I do through the Diversity in Health-Related Research supplement will help me build my area of expertise and accumulate data to support larger federally funded research projects,” she said.

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wright gift enables researchers to find answers in data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”