Study co-authored by VCU undergraduate reveals new insights into the dining habits of toucans

The keel-billed toucan was one of two species of toucans that were documented by the team to prey upon eggs of ground-nesting birds in Costa Rica.

While Toucans’ diets consist primarily of fruit, new research co-authored by a Virginia Commonwealth University biology major suggests the bird species’ dining habits are actually more opportunistic than previously believed and include the eggs of ground-nesting birds.

Maria Vera, a student in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, was part of a small team of undergraduate students and researchers who traveled to Costa Rica last summer for a nine-week National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates program to conduct a nest predator study.

As part of the study, the team built artificial bird nests on the forest ground and monitored the fake nests with camera traps. The cameras picked up two species of toucan descending to the ground to consume the eggs, marking what the team believes may be the first report of the bird preying upon nests on the forest floor.

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VCU researchers receive $2.1 million grant to investigate genetic markers for schizophrenia

The National Institute of Mental Health has awarded a $2.1 million grant to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Biomarker Research and Precision Medicine to study potential epigenetic causes of schizophrenia.

The purpose of the four-year grant is to study DNA methylation as it relates to the development of schizophrenia. Methylation is a process that involves small changes to DNA that can be inherited or be the result of environmental factors such as smoking, dietary habits and medical treatment.

“DNA methylation changes over time,” said principal investigator Karolina Aberg, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Biomarker Research and Precision Medicine and assistant professor at VCU School of Pharmacy. “Age is one aspect that changes methylation patterns, but habits like what you eat and drink and how much you exercise can also have an effect.”

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Research report: The numbers behind the innovation

Research conducted at VCU's Rice Rivers Center is one example of more than $218.9 million in university research expenditures.

Research conducted at VCU’s Rice Rivers Center is one example of more than $218.9 million in university research expenditures.

The impact of Virginia Commonwealth University researchers is wide-ranging — they have patented a canine vaccine for Lyme disease, led a nationwide effort to study concussions and aided the resurgence of sturgeon in the James River.

Those are a few of the ongoing accomplishments made with $218.9 million in VCU research expenditures, according to the National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research and Development Survey, which outlines higher education expenditures in the U.S. for fiscal year 2015.

Nationwide funding for university research has declined the past four years. Still, VCU ranked among the top 100 institutions for the highest total expenditures dedicated to research in 2015, according to the report. The university has held this distinction three times in the past 10 years. VCU also has been ranked for five consecutive years by the NSF as a top 100 research university based on federal research expenditures. Presently, VCU is ranked No. 81 in that category, with $142.4 million in federal research expenditures for fiscal year 2015.

“It’s a fitting tribute to the community of VCU scholars who continue to propel our research enterprise upward even in times of economic adversity,” said Francis Macrina, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation at VCU.

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VCU Engineering receives funding to improve access to AIDS drugs

B. Frank Gupton, Ph.D.

B. Frank Gupton, Ph.D.

The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering’s Medicines for All project has received approximately $5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a more cost-effective way to manufacture Dolutegravir, a new HIV/AIDS therapy.

The grant is the third major investment in Medicines for All in three years from the Gates Foundation, which also funded the initiative’s work to bring down the cost of the first-line AIDS treatments nevirapine and tenofovir.

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Researcher receives $2.5M grant to assist young people with intellectual disabilities gain completive employment

Katherine Inge, Ph.D.

Katherine Inge, Ph.D.

Virginia Commonwealth University researcher has received a five-year, $2.5 million

grant to help young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities — including autism spectrum disorder — to achieve competitive employment based on the individual’s choices, interests and skills.

The research grant from the National Institute on Disability Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was awarded to Katherine Inge (B.S.’75/AHP; Ph.D’95/E), Ph.D., director of the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Employment of People with Physical Disabilities in the VCU School of Education.

Rice Rivers researchers locate two juvenile Atlantic sturgeon

Matthew Balazik, Ph.D., holds a juvenile Atlantic sturgeon.  Photos by Ron Lopez.

Matthew Balazik, Ph.D., holds a juvenile Atlantic sturgeon.
Photos by Ron Lopez.

When Matthew Balazik (B.S.’05/H&S; M.S.’08/H&S; Ph.D.’12/LS), Ph.D., told colleagues he planned to sample fish from the James River right before an important presentation at the Rice Rivers Center, they pressed him to be back on time.

Cutting his trip short, he set his nets to find fish closer to the center. There, Balazik found something he has spent the last decade searching for: a juvenile Atlantic sturgeon.

“I was pulling the net over the side of the boat. I went down to grab it, thinking it was a blue catfish,” he said.  “Once I saw what it was I just stood there and stared at it for probably 10 seconds.”

In a case of lightning striking twice, the next day Balazik found a second juvenile Atlantic sturgeon. These are the first juvenile of that species found in the James in more than a decade. The discovery lends hope to Rice Rivers researchers studying this endangered species with support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

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VCU receives nearly $6 million grant to advance youth violence prevention strategies in Richmond

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently awarded Virginia Commonwealth University a nearly $6 million research grant to promote healthy communities and reduce violence rates in Richmond.

The grant resulted from a strong collaboration between community partners and the university. The university will work closely with members of the Richmond community and local organizations to carry out objectives detailed in the five-year grant.

“We will be working with city residents and community partners to improve our capacity to overcome issues that affect the health of youth,” said co-principal investigator Saba Masho, M.D., DrPh, professor of family medicine at VCU School of Medicine.

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VCU sponsored research reaches new all-time high

The university closed the 2016 fiscal year at a new record institutional high of $271.1 million in funding.

The university closed the 2016 fiscal year at a new record institutional high of $271.1 million in funding.

Virginia Commonwealth University closed the 2016 fiscal year at a new record institutional high of $271.1 million in sponsored research funding, surpassing the previous year’s record-setting total by approximately $1 million. It marks the eighth time in the past 10 years that VCU’s researchers have taken the institution to record levels of external funding. During that time, the record high has grown by $60 million.

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Where you are born can predict how long you live

There’s a growing understanding of what’s causing big differences in people’s health — and it’s far more than having access to a doctor. The Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently concluded a 21-part series with the release a life expectancy map of the Washington, D.C. region showing an eight-year gap between just a few stops along Metro’s Blue and Orange Lines.

The maps, which show life expectancy at birth have been utilized by public health officials, business owners, housing advocates, and other community leaders across the country to raise awareness of the many factors that shape health and to advance their work to improve health for residents of their communities.

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International study led by VCU chemistry professor finds promise in new class of anti-cancer drugs

Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D.

Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D.

A new class of platinum-based drugs has shown significant anti-metastatic effects in fighting cancer, according to a recently published study led by a Virginia Commonwealth University chemistry professor and cancer researcher.

The study, “Antiangiogenic platinum through glycan targeting,” which was published in the August edition of Chemical Science, found that polynuclear platinum-based drugs are effective by identifying new targets in tumor cells, which had previously been unidentified for platinum-based anti-cancer drugs. Chemical Science is the flagship journal the U.K.-based Royal Society of Chemistry, publishing research of exceptional significance from across the chemical sciences.

“We think our findings are very significant because it gives a whole new direction to platinum-based drugs,” said Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences and a member of the Developmental Therapeutics research program at VCU Massey Cancer Center. “And it gives us a whole new understanding of what was going on with the original drugs. It’s an area that might have been overlooked for 30 years. It’s opening up a whole new avenue of research for platinum-based drugs.”

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