headshots of Ababte and Sanyal

NASH and pericarditis: Wright Center researchers co-author two NEJM articles

New England Journal of Medicine logoTwo leaders at the Wright Center are co-authors on articles in the New England Journal of Medicine this month.

Arun Sanyal, M.D., associate director for KL2 Career Development at the Wright Center, contributed to research showing the effects of semaglutide, a medication used to treat diabetes, on nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), a disease that affects millions of people in the U.S. each year.

Published Nov. 13, “A Placebo-Controlled Trial of Subcutaneous Semaglutide in Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis” reports on a phase 2 trial of patients with confirmed cases of NASH. The study showed that treatment with semaglutide resulted in a significantly higher percentage of patients with NASH resolution than in those who received the placebo.

The research was presented at a recent virtual conference of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, where Sanyal also presented a field overview of the NASH landscape and recent clinical trial results. Sanyal leads and is part of multiple research projects on NASH at VCU, some showing promise for the treatment of the disease, which is the leading cause for liver transplantation in the U.S.

Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., associate director of hub research capacity at the Wright Center, contributed to research testing the safety and efficacy of an anti-inflammatory medication, rilonacept, on the rare disease of pericarditis.

Published Nov. 16, “Phase 3 Trial of Interleukin-1 Trap Rilonacept in Recurrent Pericarditis” reports that the drug was effective in 96% of patients with recurrent pericarditis. There are currently no FDA approved therapies for pericarditis. Read the Cleveland Clinic’s press release about the research.

Results of the study were presented at the American Heart Association’s recent Scientific Sessions. Abbate has spent many years studying heart diseases like pericarditis, exploring the link between heart conditions and inflammation.

Both Sanyal and Abbate have continued their research into heart and liver diseases this year, while leading and guiding clinical trials into the treatment of COVID-19.

test tubes

Wright Center Master’s program welcomes new students

One faculty, one post-doc, one recent undergraduate: Three new people with diverse backgrounds joined those earning their Master’s in Clinical and Translational Science at the Wright Center this month.

Calvin Kiani, M.D., is a new junior faculty member in Internal Medicine at VCU and is a School of Medicine Rising Scholar. He will do clinical and translational research in the field of hepatology – on alcohol-related liver disease and alcoholic hepatitis. The research will focus on novel treatments, identifying biomarkers and developing models for predicting survival in this patient population.

Emily Heiston, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral fellow working in the Department of Cardiology at the VCU Pauley Heart Center. She joins us after five years at the University of Virginia, where she earned a Master’s and Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology. Her scientific interests include metabolism, biochemistry and endocrinology, researching how they’re affected by different disease states and how exercise can impact patient outcomes.

Madisyn Elam is a spring graduate of Virginia State University and plans to go on to medical school on an M.D.-Ph.D. track after a year of doing the master’s program full time. Elam participated in an inaugural program led by the Wright Center this summer that paired VSU undergraduates and recent graduates with VCU researcher mentors.

The master’s program attracts a diverse range of students at various stages in their careers with its interdisciplinary curriculum and dedicated mentorship. People who graduate from the program are prepared to apply translational science methods along the continuum of patient care, from the bench to the bedside.

Welcome, Calvin, Emily and Madisyn!

Calvin Kiani and Emily Heiston and Madisyn Elam
Calvin Kiani, M.D., Emily Heiston, Ph.D., and Madisyn Elam join the Wright Center this month earning their Master’s degree in clinical and translational sciences.
image of heart

New pilot funding opportunity with Pauley Heart Center

The Wright Center is joining forces with the Pauley Heart Center this year to offer an up-to-$50,000 grant to VCU faculty.

This one-time funding opportunity for a pilot project is intended to stimulate new collaborative initiatives and support critical experiments that will lay the groundwork for further funding and published research. Pauley and Wright seek studies that research vascular disorders, dysfunction or disease pertaining to the nervous or circulatory systems.

The proposed work must use magnetic resonance imaging as a dependent or independent variable and the Collaborative Advanced Research Imaging facility at the Wright Center.

The submission deadline is September 19.

View full submission and budget guidelines (pdf).

VCU Health Pauley Heart Center logo

Zero to Sixty: The Wright Center’s rapid response to COVID-19

The Wright Center has been on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19 since March.

As Virginia Commonwealth University’s home for interdisciplinary human health research, the center is uniquely positioned to act as a bridge between the physicians, faculty, researchers and staff that are engaged in fighting the pandemic on multiple fronts.

And it’s done just that.

Before the government-mandated shutdown took effect, several proposed projects had been uploaded to VCU’s research management system run out of the Wright Center, OnCore. And center staff had activated to help shepherd protocols through the Institutional Review Board and other processes.

Arun Sanyal, M.D.

By late March, Wright Center Associate Director Arun Sanyal, M.D., had partnered with Gilead to bring remdesivir treatment trials to VCU. And on May 1, armed with data that VCU’s trial helped provide, the FDA issued emergency authorized use of the drug.

The Wright Center has worked diligently to prioritize and fast track other drug treatment trials based on the best available science and the drugs’ potential for large-scale efficacy. The center’s director, F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., leads a committee with several other center faculty that works to assess and evaluate proposed COVID-19 trials.

At least seven COVID-19 drug treatment trials have activated, many in record time. Trials that might take months to get off the ground have found approval within days, thanks to the Wright Center and staff at the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation (OVPRI).

Wright Center Associate Director Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D, is a lead on two studies that tackle the dangerous inflammatory response that COVID-19 patients sometimes experience:

F. Gerard Moeller, M.D.
  • Sarilumab, which was developed for rheumatoid arthritis, and
  • Canakinumab, which was developed to treat a series of rare auto-inflammatory diseases and a type of juvenile arthritis.

Benjamin Van Tassell, Pharm.D., a former KL2 scholar and now a member of Wright Center’s KL2 Oversight Committee, is involved in the latter trial. His and Abbate’s long-standing research into inflammation, supported in part by the Wright Center, has been crucial to VCU’s ability to bring cutting-edge treatment to its patients during COVID-19.

In May, with the help of Wright Center Clinical Research Unit staff, clinical trials for some of the experimental COVID-19 treatment drugs were expanded to VCU Health’s Community Memorial Hospital in South Hill, Virginia, expanding access to those drugs.

Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D.

In addition to the drug treatment trials, the Wright Center has worked to fast track projects like a potential treatment for COVID-19 using the plasma of coronavirus survivors. More than a dozen registries for analyzing COVID patient data and vitals are underway. And multiple technologies and devices that fill critical equipment needs are in development or pending approval.

The Wright Center’s informatics team, under the leadership of Tamas Gal, Ph.D., MBA, which helps compile and analyze clinical data, has re-oriented their programming projects toward registries, surveys, portals and application processes, like a survey for those who might’ve noticed a change in their smell or taste abilities – one of the virus’ symptoms.

Feeding all this new research is an influx of funds flowing toward virus-related projects.

The Wright Center contributed $100,000 to the OVPRI’s COVID-19 rapid research funding opportunity, which has yielded grant awards to 31 recipients, including several clinical and translational science projects. Wright Center KL2 Scholar Guizhi “Julian” Zhu, Ph.D., was one of those recipients, for his work on a simple, at-home vaccine delivery mechanism.

The Wright Center staff and research administrators continue to contribute the research infrastructure and compliance expertise to projects that seek to fill worldwide gaps in equipment supply.

3D printed ventilator
The 3D-printed ventilator created by an interdisciplinary team connected by the Wright Center. (Photo courtesy of Trevor Beck Frost)

The Wright Center was instrumental in connecting interdisciplinary researchers and clinicians for a 3D-printed ventilator, the plans for which will be made freely available. And Wright Center Researcher Stephen L. Kates, M.D., helped develop a sterilization pilot program to safely decontaminate N95 masks for VCU Health employees.

OVPRI, in collaboration with the Wright Center, is foregoing certain typical licensing fees during the pandemic in order to facilitate the research and development that will help combat COVID-19 collaboratively.

Annual Clinical Trials Day took on a new meaning this year, as the community rallied around healthcare providers. A COVID-19 patient in a trial run by Abbate told her story, and Abbate, Joan Greer, and Lauren Harris discussed clinical trials for a public audience.

Similarly, Wright Center researchers have acted as experts for media outlets – providing a crucial science-based perspective for the community during this public health crisis. Among others:

Much of the research that was underway when COVID-19 hit has been paused, and the Wright Center worked with OVPRI to create research continuity guidance, so that researchers would have some template for adapting their important work.

Many studies have adapted using telehealth technologies that Wright Center has led the way in. Richard Sterling, M.D., whose research has been heavily supported by the Wright Center, spoke to VCU News about telehealth in the time of a pandemic, as doctors and patients sought alternatives to in-person visits and checkups.

Suffice it to say, the Wright Center has made VCU’s rapid response to COVID-19 possible – in more ways than one.

WATCH: Antonio Abbate and Joan Greer in conversation with Lauren Harris for Clinical Trials Day

Lauren Harris, Wright Center’s hub research capacity administrator, interviews Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., the medical director of the Clinical Research Unit and an associate director at the Wright Center, and Joan Greer, R.N., nurse manager at the Clinical Research Unit at VCU Health.

Abbate and Greer answer your questions about clinical trials participation and what it’s like running clinical trials during a pandemic – in honor of Clinical Trials Day on May 20.

 

Full transcription below:

Lauren Harris (00:06):

Good afternoon. Thank you all for taking the time out of your day to come and speak with me this morning about clinical trials. As we all know, and the world may also know, that international clinical trials day is coming up on May the 20th. This is truly a time for us to thank our clinical research, trial coordinators, our nurses, our doctors, anyone who helps in getting clinical trials off the ground. International Clinical Trials will be celebrated across the world, not only from VCU and VCU Health, but across the globe. We will all be telling you thank you for your hard work and your dedication that you all put into this. Surrounding this, this day allows us also to broadcast some of the clinical trials that we have going on here at VCU and VCU Health. So today with me, I have. Dr. Antonio Abbate who is the director of the clinical research unit here at VCU Health and Joan Greer, who is the nurse manager on the North 8 floor for the Clinical Research Unit. Thank you guys. Read More

A taste of Italy: Professor’s clinical research examines whether food really is the best medicine

Selection of healthy fat sources. Top view.

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

Virginia Commonwealth University assistant professor Salvatore Carbone, Ph.D., smiles as he fondly recalls dinners with his family during summers spent in Sperlonga, Italy, a coastal town overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

“Extra-virgin olive oil was on everything, from pasta to fish and vegetables,” he said.

The Italy native joined VCU to study under Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., soon after completing degrees in dietetics and nutrition in his home country. As a research nutritionist at the VCU Health Pauley Heart Center, Carbone routinely saw patients who suffered from obesity and heart disease. He wondered how diet contributed to their health conditions.

“Most people in Italy follow a mostly Mediterranean diet, which is rich in unsaturated fat,” Carbone said, referring to the nutrients sometimes called “healthy fats” that are found in foods such as extra-virgin olive oil, nuts and avocado. “In the U.S., there is a trend of promoting a low-fat diet to prevent cardiovascular diseases, but in Mediterranean countries, where the risk of developing things like heart disease and diabetes is significantly lower, the diet tends to be high in healthy fat. I thought, ‘Why can’t we try that in the U.S.?’”Headshot of Salvatore Carbone

The thought sparked a series of preclinical and clinical research studies. Through these studies, Carbone attempted to determine if a diet rich in healthy fats that resembled the Mediterranean dietary pattern could improve body composition, cardiac function and, ultimately, exercise capacity in people who were obese and had a specific form of heart failure called heart failure with preserved ejection fraction.

Also known as HFpEF, heart failure with preserved ejection fraction occurs when the heart pumps blood and contracts normally, but is too stiff to fill and relax properly. About 5.7 million adults in the U.S. have heart failure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and about half of those people present with HFpEF. In the U.S., more than 80 percent of people who have HFpEF are overweight or obese.

“There is an urgent medical need for therapy,” Carbone said, adding that no Food and Drug Administration-approved therapies exist for people who have obesity and HFpEF. “Often, we think about pharmacologic approaches, but drugs often only target one thing. With the dietary intervention we are proposing, we hope to target multiple risk factors to eventually improve health outcomes.”

In August, the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research awarded Carbone with a Clinical Research Voucher to support his work. The Clinical Research Voucher Program was established this year to increase use of the VCU Medical Center Clinical Research Unit, a 10,000-square-foot space on the eighth floor of VCU Medical Center’s North Hospital that provides VCU Health clinicians with the physical space and support necessary to conduct clinical research. Vouchers are the equivalent of up to $10,000 in VCU Health services for research.

“The Wright Center has been extremely helpful,” Carbone said. “Just having the space and time available at the Clinical Research Unit, as well as people trained in research, helps us immensely.”

Antique world map Mediterranean

From observation to action 

Soon after observing differences between the foods he grew up eating and the typical American diet, Carbone launched a preclinical study in 2014. In a laboratory, he fed mice a high-sugar and high-saturated fat diet.

“Simply putting mice on an eating regimen resembling a Western diet impaired their cardiac function even before the mice became obese,” Carbone said of the preclinical study results, adding that he researched the components of an average American eating pattern in scientific journals to create a similar diet for the mice. His findings in the literature were reinforced with what many of the patients with heart disease at VCU Medical Center reported eating: saturated fat from animal-derived products including beef, butter and excess dairy products, and sugar from sweets and sodas.

Around the same time that Carbone concluded the preclinical research, Abbate and VCU School of Pharmacy professor Benjamin Van Tassell, Pharm.D., were leading a large clinical trial studying patients who had HFpEF. They allowed Carbone to interview 23 of their patients about their diet. Through the interviews, he found that patients who consumed more healthy fats had better exercise capacity, which was measured as peak oxygen consumption during a cardiopulmonary exercise test, than those who didn’t. He also found that increased consumption of healthy fat was associated with improved cardiac function and better body composition.

“Based on that study, we knew we had a promising association, but association doesn’t mean causation,” Carbone said.

Rather than testing his theory on human subjects right away, Carbone went back to the lab. This time, he fed mice two different diets with the same amount of calories and total fats — one high in saturated fat and low in healthy fats, and one low in saturated fat and high in healthy fat.

“Within eight weeks, which is the equivalent of several years for humans, we found that the mice who ate the diet higher in healthy fats had better cardiac function, less weight gain and better glucose metabolism and insulin resistance than the mice who ate the same amount of calories, but more saturated fat,” Carbone said. “That suggested to us that perhaps it is not just the quantity, but the quality of the diet that we eat that plays an important role in overall health.”

After conducting the second round of preclinical research, Carbone felt ready to launch a feasibility study to ensure that people would comply with a prescribed diet of increased unsaturated fatty acids. “If I was in Italy, I wouldn’t have needed to do a feasibility study because people are already consuming most of the food we recommend in our study, but here we wanted to make sure people knew what the foods were and how to incorporate them into their diet,” he said.

With pilot funding from the Pauley Heart Center and the VCU School of Medicine Department of Internal Medicine, Carbone and his research team enrolled nine VCU Health patients in a 12-week dietary intervention aimed at having participants consume a recommended daily amount of foods rich in unsaturated fatty acids. The results of the study, which published in August in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology Basic to Translational Science academic journal, demonstrated for the first time in scientific history that a dietary intervention aimed at increasing unsaturated fatty acid consumption was feasible and had the potential to improve cardiorespiratory fitness in people with severe obesity and HFpEF.

“Larger randomized controlled trials to test the efficacy of unsaturated fatty acid supplementation on cardiorespiratory fitness and clinical outcomes, as well as understanding the mechanisms through which unsaturated fatty acids may exert these beneficial effects are clearly warranted,” Carbone said in the journal article.

Supporting success

Based on the data obtained through the feasibility study, Carbone was able to secure a three-year, $231,000 grant from the American Heart Association in April to continue his research. The Clinical Research Voucher through the Wright Center supplements the research he is conducting through the AHA-funded study.

Carbone, now an assistant professor in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences, hopes the data he gathers from his work at the Clinical Research Unit will inform a larger, multicenter clinical trial that will examine the effects of a diet rich in healthy fats on clinical outcomes, such as reduced mortality and reduced risk of hospitalization for HFpEF.

“Hopefully, if this study goes well, we will be able to do a larger study where we don’t just look at exercise capacity and biomarkers, but also clinical outcomes such as hospitalization and mortality,” he said, adding that he plans to apply for funding from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the conclusion of the current clinical research study. “A dietary intervention aimed at improving the quality of the diet, independent of changes in daily caloric intake, has the potential to change the way we treat patients with obesity and HFpEF.”

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 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 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.”