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 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.

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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Organization co-founded by VCU student teaching chess, patience to Richmond youth

Legacy Chess Academy serves youth in Richmond and is aiming to serve more schools and organizations in the surrounding region.

In a Henderson Middle School classroom, dozens of Richmond children between the ages of 12 and 14 are paired off, each huddled over chess boards and playing intensely.

“Chess helps me think,” says Avery White, 12, a student at Falling Creek Middle School. “It’s a very patient game. It helps you think a few steps forward because if you make a wrong move, your opponent can get an advantage on you.”

The students were participating in a chess program run by Legacy Chess Academy — an organization co-founded by Virginia Commonwealth University senior Corey Hancock — and offered as part of the Richmond Police Athletic League’s summer program for Richmond youth.

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New book co-written by VCU English professors tells the story of Japanese scientist’s unexpected path to the Nobel Prize

Osamu Shimomura received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008 for his discovery and development of Green Fluorescent Protein, which has become an important tool for studying the biological process in cells.

A new book co-written by Virginia Commonwealth University professors Sachi Shimomura, Ph.D., and John Brinegar, Ph.D., along with Shimomura’s father, Osamu Shimomura, Ph.D., tells the life story of the elder Shimomura, from his time growing up in wartime Japan and his eyewitness account of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki to his postwar research into jellyfish bioluminescence that ultimately earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008.

The book, “Luminous Pursuit: Jellyfish, GFP, and the Unforeseen Path to the Nobel Prize” (World Scientific 2017), narrates the life and scientific career of Osamu Shimomura, detailing his travels around the world to collect and research more than 15 bioluminescent species. He received the Nobel Prize for the discovery and development of Green Fluorescent Protein — which has become an important tool for studying the biological process in cells — as he was the first person to isolate GFP and the protein aequorin from the jellyfish Aequorea victoria in the early 1960s.

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Up in the air with ASPiRE graduate Georgia Cipriani

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Georgia Cipriani (B.S.’16/H&S), a flight attendant for American Airlines, spends a lot of time flying between Richmond, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., but her job also sends her to many new and exciting places around the world. She’ll be taking over the VCU Alumni Instagram account next week giving us a glimpse into her travels.

What was your time at VCU like?

I fell in love with VCU from my first visit. There are so many amazing moments that I wish I could go back in time and relive. I loved being an RA, had great professors, loved being a part of my sorority and graduated from the ASPiRE program!

I also had the chance to study abroad in Perugia, Italy. Not only did I learn a lot of Italian, but I had a blast and met so many new people who I still talk to today. Having the opportunity to study abroad got me out of my comfort zone and I honestly still benefit from that experience to this day. When you’re introduced to a new lifestyle, it lets you learn a lot about yourself.

On top of it all, the study abroad office at VCU was so helpful whenever I had any questions; it really gave me peace of mind.

How has VCU tied into your career path?

My aunt is a child psychologist, and she’s always been a major role model and influence in my life. She sparked my interest in studying psychology early on, so when I got to VCU I knew exactly what I wanted to study, and I plan on continuing my education and eventually getting my master’s.

While you don’t need a specific major to become a flight attendant, I think VCU gave me all the right tools I need to excel at it. I believe the airline industry is one of the most diverse industries to work in, not only because we fly all over the world but also because our passengers are from everywhere around the globe.

VCU’s diversity got me accustomed to being surrounded by people from different cultural backgrounds, and now I can’t think about ever working in an environment that doesn’t offer that.

What is the day-to-day like working for an airline?

As a flight attendant, you have to give up all expectations of a “typical day” or routine. You may think you are going to Los Angeles and end up in Tulsa, Oklahoma; there are no promises ever. My bag always has an umbrella, a bathing suit and a jacket because I can never be too sure of where I’m headed, so I wake up every morning ready for anything!

Where has been your favorite travel destination?

Since working for American, I’ve been able to travel all over the U.S. and a ton of countries in Europe. My favorite place has to be Italy because that’s where I was born and where half of my family is from. I also absolutely loved Copenhagen, Denmark, and cannot wait to go back.

Fraternity scholarship extends an engineering student’s legacy

Dillon Hensley, who received his physics degree in May and plans to pursue an M.S. in the subject at VCU, is the first recipient of Triangle Fraternity’s Chris Ducic Scholarship.

Dillon Hensley (B.S.’17/H&S) completed his bachelor of science in physics with help from a program named for an outstanding engineering student: the Chris Ducic Scholarship. Hensley is the first recipient of this award, which was established by VCU’s Triangle Fraternity, a social fraternity for science, engineering and architecture students. The scholarship is named for Chris Ducic (B.S.’16/E), an academic standout in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering and founding member of Triangle who died during his senior year in 2015.

“The best way to remember Chris is by remembering his work ethic and intellect. He had a big personality — that’s for sure — but also a very strong intellect. A scholarship named after him keeps that idea front and center,” said Zachary Cullingsworth, a graduate student in mechanical and nuclear engineering and Triangle member.

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VCU lab 3-D scans mastodon fossils, helping researchers around the world study the massive Ice Age animal

Jerre Johnson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of geology at the College of William and Mary, brought a number of mastodon fossils, including this tooth, to VCU last week to be 3-D scanned.

Boxes upon boxes filled with the fossilized remains of a mastodon that died in Virginia more than 18,000 years ago are being hauled up the steps to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Virtual Curation Laboratory, where the massive Ice Age animal’s fossils — including the tip of a tusk, a very worn tooth, toe bones, a rib bone and a mandible — are slated to be 3-D scanned.

“Mastodon,” said Bernard Means, Ph.D., director of the lab, which specializes in 3-D scanning and printing of historic and archaeological objects. “It’s what’s for breakfast.”

The fossils, dating to 16,260 B.C., were excavated from a site near Yorktown between July 2015 and last November and are the most significant mastodon remains to be found east of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The mastodon’s tooth was first discovered in 1983 by a bricklayer named Lawnell Hart, who then enlisted the help of College of William and Mary geology professor Jerre Johnson, Ph.D. Hart and Johnson visited the site again and found additional fossils, but the property owners would not grant them permission to conduct a proper excavation.

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