Gold compounds could lead to new approaches in HIV drug development

An artist’s rendering of a gold compound interacting with a zinc protein on the cover of the scientific journal Chemical Communications by the Royal Society of Chemistry in the United Kingdom. Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D. has found that gold compounds impede a specific zinc protein’s role in HIV infectivity.

Virginia Commonwealth University researchers have discovered that gold compounds can be effective at reducing the infectivity of HIV in laboratory experiments.

The experiments have shown gold compounds may inhibit HIV by binding to an essential zinc-based protein and changing the shape of the protein, which prevents its attachment to DNA and RNA. The zinc-based proteins occur widely in nature and have roles in the progression of many diseases.

“This finding could eventually lead to HIV-fighting therapeutics and open up a new direction in the field of medicinal inorganic chemistry,” said Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D., principle investigator on the experiments and a professor in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Previous studies from other researchers have shown some anti-HIV activity for gold compounds, which have a long history in medicine and also have been used to specifically to treat rheumatoid arthritis. But Farrell’s work elucidating the mechanisms of gold compound and zinc protein interactions suggests new pathways for this action. His research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Gold fingers

Before the zinc protein was exposed to the gold compound, zinc was bound in looped, finger-like structures to sulfur and nitrogen atoms in the protein’s cysteine — an amino acid that contains sulfur. The gold compound, which also takes on the finger-like quality of zinc, binds to cysteines because it has a high affinity for sulfur. The protein then changes from a tetrahedral shape (a pyramidal form) to a linear form. As a result, the protein is no longer able to bind to DNA and RNA, which impedes viral infectivity, Farrell said.

The researchers also used the diagnostic technique of mass spectrometry to identify the exact way gold replaces zinc in the protein. Mass spectrometry identifies and quantifies a specified molecule based on the molecule’s composition. A novel use of ion mobility mass spectrometry allowed the VCU researchers to separate the possible types of protein formed after interaction with the gold compound and to examine protein structure.

Top honors

Farrell’s findings were detailed in two papers — one featured in Chemical Communications at the beginning of 2017 and one featured in Angewandte Chemie this spring. The paper published in Angewandte Chemie was named a “Hot Paper,” which means it was chosen by editors for its importance in a rapidly evolving field of high interest.

Co-investigators on the initial paper include: Sarah R. Spell, Ph.D., and Erica J. Peterson, lab manager in the VCU Department of Chemistry; John B. Mangrum, Ph.D., and Daniele Fabris, Ph.D., in the Department of Chemistry at the University at Albany; and Roger Ptak, Ph.D., senior program leader of In Vitro Antiviral Drug Development at the Southern Research Institute.

Farrell was joined on the second publication by postdoctoral fellow Zhifeng Du, Ph.D., visiting graduate student Raphael E.F. De Paiva, Ph.D., in the Department of Chemistry and Kristina Nelson, Ph.D, director of the Proteomic Mass Spectrometry Core Facility and research assistant.

The pursuit of ‘hoppiness’: Couple drafts a plan for success, opens Twisted Ales Craft Brewing

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

A need for adventure brought Debbi (B.A.’12/H&S; B.A.’12/H&S; Cert.’15/B; M.B.A.’17/B) and Jason (B.S.’17/B) Price to Richmond, Virginia. The couple had lived in California for more than 20 years, but when life started to feel the same, they pulled out a map of the East Coast and threw caution to the wind.

“We put our hands together and made a pointer, closed our eyes and said wherever our fingers landed was where we were going to move,” Debbi says. “When we opened our eyes, we had landed on Richmond. Everything else is history.”

In four months’ time, the Prices sold their home, picked up their two children and moved across the country, sight unseen, arriving in Virginia in 2004, just before Hurricane Gaston hit Shockoe Bottom.

“We turned on the news and saw cars floating down the streets,” Debbi says. “It was quite the first day, but we couldn’t turn back.”

Several years later, Jason started working at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory as a Web developer, and he fell in love with the university and the diversity it offered. Having completed a two-year degree program at Riverside City College before leaving California, he wanted to obtain his bachelor’s in business. VCU was the perfect fit.
“I started in 2006 and had to learn to balance a full-time job, being a parent and going to school one class a semester,” Jason says. “I had more than 20 years of development experience behind me, but it was great to see the educational side of things, and I’m grateful I was able to impart some of my knowledge to my fellow students as well.”

Debbi, who had been studying at the University of Virginia, transferred to VCU where she took classes full time and immersed herself in the college experience. As an undergraduate, she double majored in history and international studies, founded the student organization History Now and served as a senator in the Monroe Park Campus Student Government Association.

She has worked as an academic adviser and administrative specialist in the VCU Department of History since 2013 and has earned both a Certificate in Business Administration and a Master of Business Administration from the VCU School of Business.

“VCU is a microcosm of the world,” Debbi says. “I love the fact that at every turn you can experience something new and culturally diverse. We’re very lucky to have that [on campus].”

Nearly a decade had passed since the family had arrived in Richmond, and the couple had developed a love for craft beer. After some convincing from his wife, Jason eventually decided he should learn to make his own.

“The closest thing we had to [craft beer] growing up in California was Corona and lime, so this was an incredibly new experience for me,” Jason says. “We entered some of our first batch into a competition and got second place. I just couldn’t stop after that.”

The Prices developed more recipes and entered more competitions, and as their success grew so did their ambition. Thinking it would be great if they could run a family business, they drafted a plan and set out to open their own brewery.

“Our oldest son has autism and suffers from a seizure disorder,” Debbi says. “Being able to provide him stable and safe employment was a huge factor in deciding to open a business on our own.”

This past June, nearly two years after that initial conversation about starting a business, their dream became reality when Twisted Ales Craft Brewing opened to the public in the trendy Manchester area of South Richmond. Named for Jason’s want to push the creative limits that craft beers are judged by in competitions, the community has welcomed them with open arms.

The couple is planning an autism awareness fundraiser and is working with a group of VCU School of Pharmacy students who approached them to raise money for The Daily Planet,. The Prices are also partnering with Richmond’s Pink Ink Fund, which provides aid to those needing assistance with post-mastectomy tattoos.

“[Opening a business] hasn’t been easy, and we’ve had our ups and downs,” Jason says. “Regardless of what people tell you, you’re never really ready until it happens.”

With a successful business launch under their belts, the Prices are considering bottling and canning their brews and distributing them within the state, but they remain focused on doing what they can in Manchester.

“You know, there’s no grocery store in Manchester, so we’ve been talking about bringing in a farmer’s market,” Debbi says. “For us it’s more than beer, it’s a place where community can come together.”

VCU awarded $1.2 million grant to study transition to employment for military dependents with autism spectrum disorder

Paul H. Wehman, Ph.D.

Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University have received a $1.2 million grant to investigate the impact of an evidence-based program that supports military dependents with autism spectrum disorder who are seeking employment after graduating high school.

The Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program grant is funding a study measuring the impact of “Project SEARCH plus ASD Supports” on employment outcomes for military dependents with autism between the ages of 18 and 22.

This is the first known intervention study that specifically targets transition aged military dependents with autism, a group frequently described as doubly disadvantaged by their disability and their family member’s service.

The principal investigator is Paul Wehman, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the VCU School of Medicine and in the Department of Counseling and Special Education in the VCU School of Education.

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VCU School of the Arts, ICA, Department of African American Studies announce racial equity initiative

In fall 2017, the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, one of the nation’s leading arts schools; the new Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, opening in spring 2018; and the VCU Department of African American Studies will launch the Racial Equity, Arts and Culture Transdisciplinary Core, an initiative founded through the VCU Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation, known as iCubed.

Artists Meghan K. Abadoo and Paul Rucker, and scholar Onaje X.O. Woodbine will join the group as it explores efforts to redress social disparities and inequities within VCU and the broader Richmond community while drawing on the transformative potential of arts and culture.

“VCU is committed to recruiting faculty of exceptional quality who can help to reshape our educational landscape through their teaching, scholarship and service,” said Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., director of iCubed. “Meghan, Paul and Onaje will contribute to a pedagogy that promises to advance student learning in meaningful and productive ways, and encourages the community to become engaged as part of the process, leading to new findings relevant to our city and beyond.”

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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz to give a public reading at VCU

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz will give a public reading at VCU in September.

Acclaimed author Junot Díaz will give a public reading at Virginia Commonwealth University on Sept. 12.

Díaz will speak at 6 p.m. in the third floor lecture hall of James Branch Cabell Library. The reading will be followed by a Q&A, a book-signing and a reception. Admission is free and open to the public.

Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey. He is the author of “Drown”; “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and “This Is How You Lose Her,” a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist.

He is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, PEN/Malamud Award, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship and PEN/O. Henry Award. A graduate of Rutgers College, Díaz is the fiction editor at Boston Review and the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The event is co-sponsored by the Humanities Research Center in the College of Humanities and Sciences, the Office of the President, the Office of the Dean for Humanities and Sciences and the Creative Writing Program of the Department of English.

Heading west with alumnus Will Gilbert

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Will Gilbert (B.S.’15/MC), a native of Natural Bridge, Virginia, recently worked in the Virginia Commonwealth University Office of Development and Alumni Relations where he produced videos and took pictures of featured donors, alumni and students for various communications campaigns. Next week, he’ll be taking over the VCU Alumni Instagram as he travels to Denver to begin the next chapter in his journey.

What drew you to VCU?

My mother went to VCU so growing up it was always in my head as a school of interest. I was intrigued by the possibilities at a big school in a big city, and I was drawn in by the creative vibe. By my senior year of high school, I knew it was the only university I wanted to apply to, so I put all my eggs in the VCU basket and was fortunate to be accepted.

I wanted to study theater in the School of the Arts but after an unsuccessful audition, I looked at programs where I could use the skills I gained in high school theater for something else. In my search, I came across the Robertson School and was immediately interested in studying broadcast journalism. I started the classes not knowing if I’d like them, but by the end, I loved them.

What are some of your favorite memories from your time as a student?

I did my best to be an active student so I involved myself in the Honors College, was an RA in Rhoads Hall, became secretary for the SGA and briefly worked with STAT (Students Today Alumni Tomorrow). One of my favorite activities was working on VCU InSight, the award-winning student newscast. It’s a capstone course in the journalism concentration, and I loved it so much I took it three times! I started out as a reporter and then spent two semesters as an executive producer. It was a great and challenging experience working with my peers and talented advisers to pitch, shoot, write, edit and produce a newscast for Richmond PBS every other week.

I was also fortunate to participate in the VCUQatar Leadership Exchange during my final semester. I spent a week in Doha, Qatar, working with student leaders at VCUQ on leadership techniques and experiencing the culture. I loved the city and the architecture. My favorite day during the trip was when we explored the Souq Waqif, the oldest marketplace in Qatar, walking around the thin, twisting walkways having vendors trying to sell you their wares. I would love to go back some day.

How has VCU tied into your career path?

VCU shaped my entire career path! My work in DAR definitely pushed me in the direction of working in video communications in either higher education or for a nonprofit. Although I don’t necessarily work in broadcast journalism, the skills I learned as a communications major obviously help me when shooting and interviewing. The education I received through the Robertson School and the Honors College is invaluable, and I believe the reason I see myself wanting to work in higher education is I want future students to have the same positive experience at their college or university that I did.

Why are you moving to Denver?

My older brother moved there eight years ago for work and has loved it. I’ve visited three times since then and one of my sisters has moved there as well. I love the atmosphere of Denver; it kind of reminds me of a larger Richmond. There’s so much to do and see there in terms of culture, food and outdoor activities. Denver has also attracted a lot of up-and-coming businesses, so there’s lots of job opportunity right now. Also, I’ve lived my entire life in Virginia, and it’s time for a new adventure!

What’s the last Richmond meal you had before leaving the city?

This was a difficult decision for me to make, but my intention was to have one final brunch at Liberty Public House in Church Hill. I love the food there, and the vegetarian options are great. Instead, I had my final brunch at the Boathouse with my former boss! An amazing meal, with an amazing view and a spectacular woman. I’m going to miss my DAR RAMily very much!

VCU volunteers help critically ill children from developing countries feel welcome in Richmond

Betty Balanos (left) and VCU Spanish professor Anita Nadal read a picture book to Ana Sophia Balanos, 2, who has been undergoing craniofacial surgeries at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU and who was brought to Richmond by the World Pediatric Project. (Brian McNeill)

Ana Sophia Balanos, a 2-year-old from Belize, has undergone three major craniofacial surgeries at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU since she was brought to Richmond earlier this summer by the World Pediatric Project. She has one more surgery to go, but she is giggling and excited as she receives a visit from Spanish professor Anita Nadal (B.A.’05/H&S; Cert.’07/H&S) and her Virginia Commonwealth University students.

“¡Hola, princesa!” Nadal says, as she gives Ana Sophia a picture book as a present. “We’re here to spoil la princesa. Es muy importante.”

Nadal, a professor in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and students taking her class on understanding language and Latin American cultures this summer have been volunteering with the World Pediatric Project, which brings critically ill children from developing countries to the United States for medical care.

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VCU researcher develops Lyme disease diagnostic and comes closer to creating a human vaccine

The Ixodes scapularis tick (deer tick) is a known Lyme disease vector.

A Virginia Commonwealth University researcher has developed a test to more effectively detect Lyme disease in humans. And after successfully developing a Lyme disease vaccine for canines last year, VCU researchers are now closing in on a human vaccine for the disease.

Next week, Richard T. Marconi, Ph.D., professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, will be awarded a $510,000 one-year grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, to advance the development of a human Lyme disease vaccine. In addition to NIH support, this effort is supported by the Stephen & Alexandra Cohen Foundation.

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Cheeky greeting cards with a VCU twist

Old Tom Foolery cards designed by VCU graduates Tim Shumar and Jenny Yoon.

If you can’t stand sappy, hackneyed greeting cards, Old Tom Foolery might be your savior. Joel and Lauren Gryniewski founded the tongue-in-cheek greeting card business in 2008, knowing that humor was a stable foundation for relationships and business.

“Lauren and I started Old Tom Foolery because we enjoyed trying to one-up each other with funny greeting cards when we were dating, but we had a hard time finding high-quality letterpress cards that weren’t super feminine looking.” Joel Gryniewski said. “So we decided to create a brand that combined nice letterpress printing with a gender-neutral look and tone.”

Since then, the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter graduates have discovered their brand of humor translates into an acclaimed business. The Greeting Card Association has awarded Old Tom Foolery six LOUIE awards (the greeting card equivalent of an Oscar) since 2008, and awarded the company a Most Humorous award in 2012.

When done well, humor has a way of strengthening the connection between a card giver and recipient,” Joel Gryniewski (M.S.’05/MC) said. “When two people have the same sense of humor, it’s almost like a secret code they share. It’s fun to be able to write cards that help people express their shared, irreverent sense of humor in a way traditional cards can’t.”

In 2016, the Gryniewskis began collaborating with students from their alma matter, allowing them to write and design their own greeting cards. May 2017 graduates Tim Shumar (B.S.’15/MC; M.S.’17/B), Jenny Yoon (M.S.’17/B) and Conor McFarland’s (M.S.’17/B) greetings carry the same strain of humor that make Old Tom Foolery’s cards stand out from the familiar, cringeworthy occasion cards you can find at a drug store or supermarket.

For Shumar, writing greeting cards has a dual purpose.

“As everyone knows, greeting-card writing is a surefire way to attract ladies,” he said. “I did it for them. … [I was also hoping to bring] world peace or [end] hunger. Whichever.”

These Brandcenter alumni have flexed their creative muscles for a successful company. The Gryniewskis themselves see Old Tom Foolery as a product of perseverance.

“Starting a business [and sticking with it] isn’t easy,” Joel Gryniewski said. “Lots of people talk about doing it. But we actually did it. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to keep it going for the past 10 years.”

Center for Sport Leadership to lead delegation of Richmond youth soccer players and coaches to promote sports and social change in Kazakhstan

The Richmond youth soccer players will take part in the sports diplomacy delegation to Kazakhstan.

The Center for Sport Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University will lead a delegation of local soccer coaches and youth soccer players to Kazakhstan this summer for a program aimed at ways sports can create social change.

The program, called ENVEST (Empowering New Voices through Education and Sport Training) is funded by a $700,000 grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs through its Sports Diplomacy Division.

The Richmond-based delegation will travel to Astana, Kazakhstan from Aug. 7-13 where they will meet with coaches and players from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The visit will coincide with the World Expo taking place in Astana this summer.

ENVEST will operate under the leadership of Center for Sport Leadership Executive Director Carrie LeCrom, Ph.D., who has been awarded three previous grants from the U.S. Department of State and has partnered with them to lead sport-for-development missions in Ethiopia, China and South Africa.

“We are grateful to be working with U.S. Department of State again to provide impactful sport for development programming,” LeCrom said. “The trip to Kazakhstan is unique because it is the first time youth will be part of our delegation.”

The youth players and coaches will participate in programming designed to promote cultural understanding. Groups from all countries will create action plans using soccer as a vehicle to address social issues effecting their communities.

The Center for Sport Leadership, which is part of the VCU School of Education, is partnering with the Richmond Strikers Soccer Club and the Football Federation of Kazakhstan. Following the U.S. delegation’s visit this summer, a delegation from Kazakhstan and other participating countries will visit the United States in early 2018.

“By incorporating strategic partners in a productive way, ENVEST has the potential to not only be impactful to those involved, but to have a ripple effect, reaching so many others as well,” LeCrom said.