VCU professors join elite biomedical engineering group

Three Virginia Commonwealth University professors have joined the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, an elite group that comprises the top 2 percent of medical and biological engineers nationally.

AIMBE inducted Gregory Buck, Ph.D., of the VCU School of Medicine, and B. Frank Gupton, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’00/,H&S) and Lukasz Kurgan, Ph.D., both of the VCU School of Engineering, into its prestigious College of Fellows Class of 2018 on Monday at a formal induction ceremony during AIMBE’s 27th annual meeting.

These inductions bring the university’s total number of AIMBE Fellows to 12.

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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 researchers named Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists for 2018

M. Samy El-Shall, Ph.D.; and Arun Sanyal, M.D., at the 2018 Outstanding STEM Awards held at the Science Museum of Virginia.

Two Virginia Commonwealth University researchers were recognized Thursday as Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists for 2018 by Gov. Ralph Northam at the annual Outstanding STEM Awards held at the Science Museum of Virginia.

The awards, which have been presented by Virginia governors for more than 30 years, recognize individuals for their contributions in science, technology, engineering and math. Six were honored at Thursday’s event: three researchers for longtime contributions to their fields and three budding scientists.

“Celebrating the academic excellence and entrepreneurial spirit of these Virginians helps showcase how STEM innovations tie into our everyday lives,” Northam said. “It also highlights the profound contribution that STEM makes to Virginia families and our economy. I thank these extraordinary awardees and everyone who works hard to make Virginia a leader in these important fields.”

Arun Sanyal, M.D. (H.S.’90/M), a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine in the VCU School of Medicine; and M. Samy El-Shall, Ph.D., commonwealth professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences, were two of three researchers named Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists for 2018.

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Virus detective: VCU alumnus stands at the forefront of flu research

Emergency hospital during 1918 influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas
Courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, D.C., Image NCP 1603

By Julie Young

A pioneering virologist with medical and doctoral degrees from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine has unlocked secrets to a deadly flu virus through plots and twists befitting an Indiana Jones movie.

Jeffery Taubenberger, M.D., Ph.D.

As a med student in the mid-1980s, Jeffery Taubenberger, M.D., Ph.D. (M.D.’86/M; Ph.D.’87/M) couldn’t have imagined that his chief interest, basic immunology, would catapult him into scientific stardom.

The 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that killed more than 40 million people worldwide was barely a blip in his medical education but turned into a hobby and eventually his life work. Today, Taubenberger serves as deputy chief of the laboratory of infectious diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He’ll be at VCU Monday, Feb. 19, for a special VCU Libraries lecture, “On the Centenary of the 1918 Flu: Remembering the Past and Planning for the Future.”

The flu pandemic that fascinated Taubenberger led him to crack the 1918 strain’s genetic code and discover why it was so deadly. Mapping the genome unlocked the secret to pathogens responsible for the Spanish virus and revealed key behaviors of strains such as this year’s widespread flu.

After graduation in 1987, Taubenberger completed a pathology residency and worked as a staff pathologist at the National Cancer Institute. In 1993, he joined the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Maryland.

“I set up a new group to use what, at that time in the early ’90s, was really kind of very cutting-edge, ‘Star Trek’-type medicine,” Taubenberger says. The strategy was to use molecular biology tools and new information about DNA mutations to diagnose diseases. “Traditionally, you make a diagnosis by looking at tissues under the microscope,” he says.

Taubenberger and his team worked in a Washington, D.C., building that housed the largest archive of pathology material in the world, which sparked his memory of that passing reference at VCU to the 1918 flu. “I was thinking that if we could find material from people who died of the 1918 flu, perhaps we could apply molecular biology tools to learn something about this huge, really virulent influenza virus,” he says.

After years of painstaking research, the team identified one positive flu case from a soldier who died in South Carolina in 1918. “We had a little tiny bit of lung tissue from that soldier’s autopsy, about the size of a fingernail,” Taubenberger says. It was enough to generate a partial sequence of the virus. The breakthrough was reported in 1997 in the journal Science.

Across the country in San Francisco, a freewheeling adventurer and retired pathologist named Johan Hultin read the Science article and wrote to Taubenberger. Hultin had traveled to Alaska’s Seaward Peninsula twice in the 1950s to extract DNA from flu victims under the permafrost in the village of Brevig Mission. He had tried unsuccessfully to culture the virus.

Hultin told Taubenberger that he could unearth larger samples of the virus. Using $3,200 of his savings, Hultin returned to the Seward Peninsula, where he exhumed and autopsied a flu victim nicknamed “Lucy.” He shipped her lung tissue to Taubenberger’s lab. The material tested positive for the virus.

Taubenberger used Lucy’s tissue and fragments from autopsies of other victims worldwide to sequence the entire genome of the virus. Using molecular biology techniques, a multi-institutional project was able to produce infectious copies of the deadly virus by 2005. Virologists hailed it as a lifesaving discovery, the largest-ever breakthrough in flu research.

“We’ve learned a lot,” Taubenberger says. “The concern that I have is that something like this could happen again. We would hope, obviously, that it never would, but we are concerned; therefore, what could we do to try to prevent that?”

Vaccination is the answer, he adds. But flu shots have proven to be only partially effective because “influenza is never standing still,” Taubenberger says. That’s what makes flu such a frustrating public health challenge.

“The reason the vaccine has to be remade every year is to try to keep up with this really rapid mutation of the virus,” he says. “It would be bad enough if it were just a human virus, but influenza viruses are present in hundreds of species of animals, including wild birds, domestic birds, pigs … and they have the ability to jump from one species to another.”

In recent years, his lab has pushed to develop a universal flu vaccine that would protect against all strains.

“This is a pretty tall order, but our hope is to develop a vaccine that would prevent the serious complications of influenza so that if you were exposed to a virus like 1918, perhaps you would feel ill for a couple of days but you would not develop pneumonia or need to be hospitalized. That’s the goal we would like to pursue,” Taubenberger says. “And having worked on the 1918 virus has really given us insights into how we could perhaps do that. We hope to have some of our initial candidate vaccines in clinical trials by next year, so we’re excited about that.”


Sanger Series: Going Viral with Jeffery Taubenberger, M.D., Ph.D.
“On the Centenary of the 1918 Flu: Remembering the Past and Planning for the Future”

Monday, Feb. 19
5-7 p.m.
Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building Auditorium, 1217 E. Marshall St.
Reception to follow

The lecture is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

VCU researchers receive $4.2M NIH grant to study treatment for chemical attacks

With the backing of a five-year award of approximately $4.2 million in total costs from the National Institutes of Health, Robert DeLorenzo and a team of Virginia Commonwealth University researchers are studying and developing ways to treat and prevent human fatalities and morbidity that could result from chemical attacks on U.S. soil.

DeLorenzo, M.D., Ph.D., the George Bliley Professor of Neurology in the VCU School of Medicine, is the principal investigator on the team that received the grant from the NIH Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats program. CounterACT supports basic and translational research aimed at identifying medical countermeasures against chemical threats.

DeLorenzo said public safety is the key goal behind the research. He is working with Robert Blair, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’98/M), and Laxmikant Deshpande, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’06/M), assistant professors in the VCU School of Medicine Department of Neurology, as well as Rakesh Kukreja, Ph.D., the Eric Lipman Professor of Medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine, and Matthew Halquist, Ph.D., assistant professor and laboratory director in the Department of Pharmaceutics in the School of Pharmacy.

Medical school alumna is a voice for all children

Colleen Kraft, M.D.

If it takes a village to raise a child, then Colleen Kraft, M.D. (M.D.’86/M; H.S.’89/M), might say it takes a pediatrician who knows that village to heal one.

Kraft, who earned her medical degree from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in 1986, believes spending time in the community is what opened her eyes to the daily issues and concerns facing the children and families she cared for in the office. Nothing, Kraft says, can replace the education you receive when you observe a child’s everyday environment. Some of her greatest insights came during conversations at the park, visits to the local library, school nurse’s office, daycare centers and church nurseries.

“Kids spend 15 minutes in the [doctor’s] office but they live in the community,” she said. “Your investment in the community is what really makes a difference.”

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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 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 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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Pharmacy professor named first da Vinci Center Faculty Fellow

Dayanjan “Shanaka” Wijesinghe, Ph.D.

Dayanjan “Shanaka” Wijesinghe, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’08/M),  wants to go beyond standard science.

“People like to say, ‘I’m doing arts, I’m doing science.’ No, no, no,” he said. “You are both doing art. It’s creating something brand new with the tools that you have. It’s art that’s based on a logical process, that’s true. But it’s creativity at its heart.”

The assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Pharmacy is the first da Vinci Center Faculty Fellow. Wijesinghe’s commitment to collaboration across disciplines brought him to Garret Westlake, the center’s director.

“He actually reached out to me,” said Westlake. “I think it was my first week at VCU, and he said, ‘I would like to be more involved with the da Vinci Center, I wanted to get your ideas about where you see the center going in the future.’”

The faculty fellowship’s purpose is to highlight VCU faculty who champion cross disciplinary collaboration and innovation. Wijesinghe saw an opportunity to bring pharmacy and da Vinci students together to inspire entrepreneurship and creative thinking. He sees collaboration between the two as a ripe opportunity for student startups.

“Thinking outside the box, bringing the right people together and getting things done. That’s pretty much what we are trying to do here,” Wijesinghe said.

Wijesinghe recently sat down for an interview to discuss his roots as a scientist, and what intrigues him about the future.

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