Three new genetic markers associated with risk for depression

After becoming the first to definitively discover genetic markers for major depression, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and collaborators have found more genetic clues to the disease.

study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry details the discovery of three additional genetic risk markers for depression, which builds on the groundbreaking discovery of two genetic risk factors in 2015. Lead authors include Roseann Peterson, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’12/M), an assistant professor of psychiatry at the VCU Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, and Na Cai of the European Bioinformatics Institute and the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom.

Both sets of findings were the result of an international collaboration among researchers from the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, the University of Oxford and throughout China to shed light on genetic causes of the disease. Principal investigators Kenneth Kendler at VCU and Jonathan Flint at the University of California, Los Angeles led this large-scale collaborative effort, which resulted in a study of more than 10,000 Han Chinese women from 50 hospitals across China.

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VCU anthropology professor hunts for fossils of humans’ earliest origins

Amy Rector Verrelli, Ph.D., and Omar Abdullah show off hominin teeth fossils that they found in the Afar region of Ethiopia.

Virginia Commonwealth University anthropology professor Amy Rector Verrelli, Ph.D., just returned from a research trip to Ethiopia where she served as part of the Ledi-Geraru Research Project that in 2013 discovered a fossil of the earliest member of the genus Homo, pushing back the origin of humans’ genus to 2.8 million years ago.

Rector Verrelli, an assistant professor of anthropology in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, was one of a team of researchers from Arizona State University, Pennsylvania State University, George Washington University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas hunting for fossils in the Afar region of Ethiopia, between the Ledi and Geraru rivers.

“It has deposits that are between about 1 million and 3 million years ago, so the goal is to look for fossils of our ancestors from that time period,” Rector Verrelli said. “In that area, that usually means Australopithecus afarensis (famous for the Lucy skeleton), but in 2013 project scientists discovered the earliest member of our genus, the genus Homo.”

Researchers in 2013 found a partial hominin mandible with teeth from the Ledi-Geraru research area, thereby establishing the presence of Homo between 2.8 million and 2.75 million years ago. The find extended the record of recognizable Homo by at least a half-million years, shedding new light on human evolution.

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VCU’s new La Esperanza Lab to study health disparities, impact of immigration policy on Richmond’s Latinx population

Oswaldo Moreno, Ph.D.

Oswaldo Moreno, Ph.D.

Growing up in Arizona as the son of Mexican immigrants, Oswaldo Moreno, Ph.D., saw firsthand how the United States’ immigration policies could affect Latinx communities.

Now, as a new faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University, Moreno is gearing up to study how policies — including access to health care, immigration restrictions and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — are affecting Latinx students at VCU, as well as the growing Hispanic population of the Richmond region.

“The reason why I do this is because I feel heavily involved with these communities. I come from a Latin community myself. I was raised in Phoenix, the hub of immigration policies [that were characterized by] discrimination constructs, prejudice and institutional biases,” said Moreno, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Now all that’s on a national platform, impacting communities like Richmond.”

Moreno’s La Esperanza Lab (“esperanza” is Spanish for “hope”) at VCU aims to understand and address health care disparities in the United States that affect individuals from low-income and racial and ethnic minority backgrounds.

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They created a computer station — and changed a quadriplegic patient’s life

Students Dustin Mays and Evan Amabile with Derrick Bayard at his home in Richmond.

Before dawn on Aug. 8, 2017, Derrick Bayard began having severe pain in his abdomen, followed by body spasms. Soon after, it became hard to breathe. He was home alone, a detail made exponentially more important — and dangerous — by the fact that he’s a quadriplegic, unable to use his hands and feet. Bedridden.

“I thought I could wait it out, but the pain was getting progressively worse and no one else would get here until 9 a.m.,” Bayard said.

So, using his head tracking mouse to press keys on the laptop monitor mounted above his bed, Bayard got on Facebook to see if any of his friends were online at such an early hour. He found three: one in West Virginia, one in New York and one in Richmond. They sent emergency help to Bayard’s Richmond home, but he couldn’t let first responders inside. One of them saw Bayard through a back window, but couldn’t gain access. A rescue team eventually broke through Bayard’s front window and transported him to Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. He was treated for a urinary tract infection, a common and potentially life-threatening ailment for quadriplegic patients.

Bayard is familiar with VCU for several reasons. It is the health system from which he has received primary care for more than 20 years. It is also where Dustin Mays, Lars Hofland and Evan Amabile attend graduate school in the School of Allied Health Professions’ Department of Occupational Therapy. This past spring, the three students built a customized computer table for Bayard’s laptop monitor. If the monitor had been anywhere else, and not tilted perfectly above him, Bayard would have lost precious time summoning assistance.

“It took me less than a minute to send for help,” he said. “If I just had [the computer] sitting somewhere else, it would have taken [longer] depending on what position I was in.”

Lack of dexterity has been a longtime nemesis for 56-year-old Bayard. Forty years ago he was felled by a bullet to the neck that was intended for someone else. He was paralyzed instantly. Like most people, he uses his computer for everyday tasks such as accessing the internet and social media. A few years ago, however, he began developing pressure ulcers on his elbows and chest, because he used them to prop himself up while laying on his stomach to face his computer screen. At the time, there was no way his laptop could be tilted above him. Bayard’s home attendant at the time, Latoya Harvey, wasn’t able to configure a way to keep the laptop steady enough for Bayard to use while on his side. It occasionally toppled onto him in bed.

Enter a team of VCU students with a $10 budget and an idea.

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VCU physicists discover a tri-anion particle with colossal stability

A rendering of protons, neutrons and electrons in an atom.

Virginia Commonwealth University researchers have achieved a feat that is a first in the fields of physics and chemistry — one that could have wide-ranging applications.

A team in the lab of Puru Jena, Ph.D., a distinguished professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has created the most stable tri-anion particle currently known to science. A tri-anion particle is a combination of atoms that contains three more electrons than protons. This discovery is novel because previously known tri-anion particles were unstable due to their numerical imbalance. These unstable particles dispel additional electrons, interrupting chemical reactions.

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Devanand Sarkar’s quest to cure liver cancer

When Devanand Sarkar, Ph.D., came to VCU Massey Cancer Center in 2008, he wanted to pursue a new direction in his research. Driven by the loss of a close friend and colleague, Sarkar was on a mission to better understand the processes that drive the development of liver cancer. Nearly a decade later, his research is close to bringing about new treatments for the disease while redefining how obesity is connected to cancer.

In America, one of the biggest drivers of liver cancer is fatty liver disease due to obesity. Obesity leads to the deposition of fat in the liver, which causes chronic inflammation and eventually develops into cancer. The mechanisms behind this transformation were once a mystery, and then Sarkar unraveled them.

“It started with this gene, AEG-1,” said Sarkar, the associate director for education and training at Massey who also holds the Harrison Foundation Distinguished Professorship in Cancer Research and is a member of Massey’s Cancer Molecular Genetics research program.

Sarkar and his colleagues had originally discovered and cloned AEG-1 at Columbia University in the laboratory of Paul Fisher, Ph.D., now professor and chair of the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics at VCU School of Medicine.

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VCU Engineering boosts percentage of women in computer science and electrical and computer engineering

A VINE workshop at the VCU School of Engineering.

“Stereotype threat” is a self-fulfilling phenomenon in which people — usually women and minorities — think they are at risk of being negatively stereotyped and end up conforming to those very stereotypes. For instance, studies have shown that even mentioning gender caused girls to perform worse than boys on math tests, said Lorraine Parker, Ph.D., the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering director of diversity and student programs.

Parker cites one study in which both boys and girls took a math test and performed the same. Later, they were given another test but were asked to indicate their gender at the top of the paper. The girls tested much lower this time.

“It was just a very subtle reminder that, ‘Hey, you’re a girl,’ and suddenly the women did far worse,” Parker said. “[Society] says that women aren’t as good at math as boys. And if you remind them of that, even indirectly,” it can have detrimental effects.

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VCU Engineering’s Medicines for All awarded $25 million to increase access to lifesaving medications

B. Frank Gupton, Ph.D. Photo by Dan Wagner, courtesy VCU School of Engineering

The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering has been awarded a $25 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to establish the Medicines for All Institute and to fund the institute’s work on a wide range of essential global health treatments. With this grant, the institute can help increase access to lifesaving medications for HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases around the world.

B. Frank Gupton, Ph.D., the Floyd D. Gottwald Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering in the VCU School of Engineering, will continue to lead and serve as principal investigator for Medicines for All. Over the past four years, the Gates Foundation has awarded nearly $15 million to Medicines for All. During this time and with this support, Medicines for All has developed an innovative model that reduces the cost of manufacturing AIDS treatments such as nevirapine by accelerating the creation of more efficient ways of synthesizing the active ingredients in the medications. The institute has also worked closely with the Clinton Health Access Initiative and other implementation partners to transfer the new processes to manufacturers so that more medications can reach communities in need.

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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.

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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