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FDA Approval for Tryptase Test


SEBIO Competition’s Final Four


Partners for Discovery


Resident’s Research


Tick-Transmitted Disease


Research Notes


Searching for Birdsongs

Dean’s Discovery Initiative School of Medicine Development Office VCU’s Medical College of Virginia Campus P.O. Box 980022 Richmond, VA 23298-0022 ADDRESS SERVICE REQUESTED

the BIG picture...

at the molecular level

This atomic model helps researchers understand the molecular mechanisms underlying a biological process that could be important in autoimmune diseases.

Carlos Escalante, Ph.D., created the model in his work with a national research team that reported on the role of transcription factors in regulating the immune system’s T helper cells. His models illustrate the team’s finding that different genes are activated depending on the arrangement of the two transcription factors along the DNA site. On page 7, read more about the team’s findings that were published in Science last September.




The symptoms can be vague. They include fatigue, dizzy spells, flushing spells, diarrhea and unexplained osteoporosis. Until recently, a correct diagnosis of mastocytosis — a group of rare, chronic disorders caused by the presence of too many mast cells in the blood — would have been unlikely unless the patient also had a characteristic rash. Now the chances are much better, thanks to a test developed by Lawrence B. Schwartz, M.D., Ph.D., that has been approved by the FDA. Schwartz, chair of the Division of Rheumatology, Allergy and Immunology and the Charles and Evelyn Thomas Professor of Medicine, began researching human mast cells more than 30 years ago. In the early 1980s, he and his team discovered tryptase, a protein released by mast cells when they are triggered as part of the body’s inflammatory process. “When we first found tryptase,” Schwartz recalls,

they had been hunting for “what proteins might be present in the human mast cell that make this cell unique and how those proteins might explain what mast cells do. Then, when we realized the unique presence of tryptase in mast cells and started developing antibodies and assays for it, we also realized that tryptase might be clinically useful as a biomarker.” Schwartz developed a series of tests, or assays, to evaluate mast cell activity by measuring tryptase levels in the blood. VCU Tech Transfer licensed the tryptase test to Pharmacia (now Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc.) in 1993. In March 2012, the company received FDA approval to sell the ImmunoCAP Tryptase assay for use in diagnosing mastocytosis. This usage had already been included in diagnostic guidelines produced by the World Health Organization and other societies. The tryptase assay is also being used off-label by many clinicians to more precisely diagnose anaphylaxis, and recent research suggests that



by Joriel C. Foltz

it may be useful in predicting increased risk of severe anaphylaxis. In the future, Schwartz hopes his research will lead to therapeutic applications. One of the antibodies produced by his team has a unique ability to inhibit the enzymatic activity of tryptase. Although it remains in a preliminary stage, this technology could eventually be useful in the treatment of diseases that involve ongoing or chronic activation of mast cells, such as asthma and atopic dermatitis.

Any biomedical researcher is thrilled if there is some translational outcome to their research that helps mankind.

FOUR x2 Pair of VCU Technologies Earn Attention at the Southeast BIO Investor Forum

Southeast BIO’s annual plan competition attracts an audience of venture capital and angel investors, serial entrepreneurs and industry representatives. With the help of VCU Tech Transfer, two VCU technologies were among the four finalists to present at the annual SEBIO Investor Forum in Palm Beach, Fla. Finalists are awarded face-to-face, private meetings with top investors in the region to promote their opportunities and commercialization plans.

Optimized surgical mesh for hernia repair

Handheld device for testing cardiac ischemia

In the hernia mesh market, the problems of infection, adhesion and recurrence are well known and result in significant follow-on health care costs. Where existing products focus on what the product is made of, a pair of VCU researchers have used electrospinning technology to create a monofilament, lightweight, dual-sided mesh that overcomes the problems that plague other products.

Three-quarters of patients admitted to the hospital each year for heart attack symptoms fall into a gray zone: non-diagnostic ECG readings and biological markers that aren’t yet elevated. These patients must be monitored and given additional tests until a conclusive diagnosis can be made. Ultimately, only 15 percent of patients receive a heart attack diagnosis. A trio of faculty members has proposed developing a handheld device that allows for fast testing — within minutes — of an early marker of ischemia, which can help clinicians to make more timely treatment or discharge decisions.

Gary Bowlin, Ph.D., (right) professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and David Simpson, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics.

The team was recently chosen by the federally funded Virginia Innovation Partnership for help in boosting their commercialization and start up activities. They’ll receive financial support as well as access to a network of mentors. From left to right: Todd Gehr, M.D., professor and vice chair in the Department of Internal Medicine; Lynne Gehr, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Anesthesiology; and Don Farthing, Ph.D., affiliate assistant professor in the Department of Pharmaceutics.




PARTNERS FOR DISCOVERY Foundations lend support to faculty, new discoveries

More than half a dozen researchers from VCU’s two Richmond campuses are coming together to try to improve the health of HIV-infected women in Mali, West Africa. Funded by the BILL & MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION, the study will help researchers determine how certain beneficial intestinal bacteria may enhance immune system function. “HIV-infected individuals can suffer alterations of the type and quantity of intestinal bacteria,” said principal investigator Daniel Nixon, D.O., Ph.D., director of the VCU HIV Center and associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine. “These changes may have profound adverse effects on the immune system, contributing to HIV disease progression and even seemingly unrelated conditions like cardiovascular disease.”

A new grant from THE MICHAEL J. FOX FOUNDATION FOR PARKINSON’S RESEARCH will support research on the benefits of memory and problem-solving training compared to supportive therapy for people with Parkinson’s disease and mild cognitive impairment. The three-year $107,000 grant was awarded on the strength of promising results from a pilot project that was also supported by philanthropic gifts. “Our Foundation is dedicated to finding novel treatments for the non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease,” said Jamie Eberling, Ph.D., senior associate director of research programs at MJFF. “For many, cognitive decline and declines in mood associated with PD provide real hurdles to navigating daily life. This trial’s focus on managing these symptoms could provide new techniques for addressing these challenges head on.” LAGEMAN


The study will use sophisticated molecular techniques to precisely characterize the numerous gut bacteria species and analyze immune system function before and after the administration of beneficial probiotic bacteria. With an aim to adapt U.S. science to West African conditions, the interdisciplinary research team includes medical experts in community health as well as anthropologists, linguists, and in-country physician partners who are experts on Malian culture and healthcare delivery. The studies will be conducted in two community health clinics in Ségou, Mali that provide basic health services to 60,000 people.


Patricia Cummins, Ph.D., professor of French in the VCU School of World Studies, and Saba Masho, M.D., associate professor of epidemiology and community health in the VCU School of Medicine, serve as co-principal investigators of the study. The researchers won the $100,000 grant from the Gates Foundation through its Grand Challenges Explorations program that funds projects that take innovative approaches to some of the world’s toughest and most persistent global health and development challenges.


Patients with Parkinson’s often experience thinking difficulties and declines in mood. These neurocognitive symptoms can result in a significant decrease in individuals’ activity levels, quality of life and independence that commonly leads to nursing home admissions. Sarah K. Lageman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neurology and a neuropsychologist with the VCU Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders Center leads the study. She will randomly assign patients for eight weekly sessions of either cognitive therapy or supportive therapy. To help with memory, cognitive therapy participants will practice keeping a calendar that includes appointments and a to-do list, but also features extra room for more details. “It is a modified personal calendar that is designed for people needing more memory support,” said Lageman. The problem-solving technique entails a system with four steps to help patients manage problems like taking medications, following a diet and exercise regimen, completing household chores or starting a new hobby. “The problem-solving technique is completely patient-driven. The system remains the same, but patients work on their own chosen goals,” Lageman said. Supportive therapy participants, on the other hand, will have the chance to discuss and reflect upon both Parkinson’s and non-Parkinson’s related problems. The supportive therapy sessions provide dedicated time for participants to focus on personal priorities and experiences. Both therapies offer strategies that patients can use as their symptoms change, with minimal cost and no known side effects. Lageman will determine which might be the most helpful to patients in terms of thinking abilities and physical health as well as how patients and their family members rate their thinking skills, mood and quality of life.


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Residents Participate in Research Physicians today must be life-long learners with the skills to judge whether the latest research findings should change the way they care for patients. To hone those skills, residents training in the various specialties at the VCU Medical Center are increasingly getting first-hand experience leading their own research projects. For fourth-year radiology resident Mack Hendrix, M.D., getting involved in research was also a way to determine if a career in academic medicine is right for him.

MCV Campus next year as an interventional radiology fellow, and his recent research projects reflect that focus: from the diagnosis and treatment of renovascular hypertension in children to timing endovascular treatment for acutely ill patients with traumatic aortic injury. Findings from those and other projects resulted in invitations to national meetings. He’s twice presented posters at the Radiologic Society of North America, and he is scheduled for the Society of Interventional Radiology meeting in April.

“In theory, discovering new techniques, refining ideas and contributing to the growing body of knowledge in radiology sounded good, but I had very little research exposure in medical school and wasn’t sure how the operational side worked,” Hendrix said. His initial research focused on general diagnostic radiology but as he progressed in residency, his interests shifted. He’ll stay on the

For fourth-year radiology resident Mack Hendrix, M.D., getting involved in research was also a way to determine if a career in academic medicine is right for him.

“Imaging and imaging based treatments are a moving target. Radiologists need to able to adapt,” Hendrix said. Whether he pursues private practice or academic medicine, he says that “doing research has given me an appreciation for the work required to develop and refine new techniques in diagnostic and interventional radiology, and how important it is to our field to continue innovating.”

The Graduate Medical Education Office is finding new ways to encourage residents to get involved with research. In 2012, it teamed up with VCU’s Center for Clinical and Translational Research to organize an revamped research primer that familiarized more than 100 residents with concepts like research design and Institutional Review Boards. Residents have the chance to share their findings at a yearly Residents Research Day that showcases poster and oral presentations, and some residency programs support travel costs for residents whose projects are accepted at national conferences.

In 2012,

the VCU Medical Center saw more than 300 residents author articles and abstracts, a nearly 20 percent increase over the previous year.



Coney elected to Institute of Medicine PonJola Coney, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology, has been elected to the Institute of Medicine. She is the School of Medicine’s fifth IOM member.

“As director of VCU’s Center on Health Disparities, Dr. Coney has built an impressive pipeline program for minority students in the health sciences and has fostered a robust federally funded program that addresses major issues in disease burden in African Americans and other minority populations,” said Jerry Strauss III, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the School of Medicine. “Her expertise in women’s health and health disparities will be invaluable to the IOM as it pursues its mission as health adviser to Congress and the nation.” Strauss is also a member of the Institute of Medicine along with Kenneth Kendler, M.D., professor of psychiatry, and human and molecular genetics; Steven Woolf, M.D., professor of family medicine; and Joseph Ornato, M.D., professor and chair of emergency medicine. The Institute of Medicine is recognized as a national resource for independent, scientifically informed analysis and recommendations on issues such as environmental factors in breast cancer, the scientific necessity of chimpanzees in research and establishing crisis standards of care during catastrophic disasters.

Dewey receives national honor William L. Dewey, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, will be honored with this year’s Torald Sollman Award from the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics in April.

The award recognizes Dewey’s accomplishments during a long career that has been distinguished by contributions to education, research and service in pharmacology. Author of more than 300 research papers, review articles and book chapters, Dewey also has mentored 17 doctoral students and 33 post-doctoral trainees. He actively serves his field, including in a number of roles with the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, from its journal’s editorial board to its presidency. He also served as president of The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and the College on Problems of Drug Dependence. Dewey is the recipient of many prestigious awards including the Nathan B. Eddy Award from the College on Problems of Drug Dependence, and the Lifetime Achievement in Science Award from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Last May, Dewey’s more than 40 years of research and academic leadership at VCU were honored with the Presidential Medallion, the university’s award for extraordinary achievement.


Unlocking the Molecular Basis for Infection of TickTransmitted Disease

The bacterium Anaplasma phagocytophilum binds to the surface of a host cell. Carlyon discovered the keys to its invasion: two proteins called OmpA and Asp14.


urvival for many bacteria depends on their ability to invade human or animal cells. They gain entrance by matching a specific set of “keys” on the bacteria’s surface to unlock specific “doors” on the host cells.

In studies published in the November and January issues of the journal Infection and Immunity, Jason A. Carlyon, Ph.D., identified the keys and doors of a bacterium responsible for an emerging tick-transmitted disease. His findings could point researchers toward the development of a single vaccine that protects against an entire family of bacteria that cause disease in humans, domestic animals and livestock. After Lyme disease, granulocytic anaplasmosis is the second most common tick-transmitted disease in the United States. It is caused by the Anaplasma phagocytophilum, a bacterium known to infect humans. Carlyon discovered the bacterium’s keys. The first is a protein called OmpA that unlocks a door into the host cell by binding to a telltale sugar residue on the host cell’s surface. The region of OmpA that serves as a key to infection is shared among its entire family of bacteria. The second is a protein called Asp14 that works cooperatively with OmpA to promote bacterial invasion. By targeting OmpA and Asp14 together, Carlyon’s team was able to block Anaplasma infection much more effectively than targeting either protein alone. By understanding how these bacteria invade cells, researchers hope to identify potential targets to block the spread of infection, and from there, develop safe and effective vaccines. VCU has filed a patent on this work and is seeking commercial partners to further develop the technology. The National Institutes of Health supported the study that Carlyon led. It encompassed half a dozen researchers in VCU’s medical school as well as at Yale University, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine. Their findings were highlighted in a commentary that appeared in the January issue of Infection and Immunity.

Jason Carlyon is an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and is a George and Lavinia Blick Scholar at VCU. A medical school alumnus, Carlyon earned his Ph.D. in 1999, going on to complete post-doctoral training at Yale University. In 2007, he returned to the MCV Campus, joining the microbiology faculty.

by Kristen Coulter

MS DRUG MAY ONE DAY TREAT COLORECTAL CANCER After uncovering a mechanism that promotes chronic intestinal inflammation and the development of colorectal cancer, scientists found that fingolimod, a drug approved for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, could potentially eliminate or reduce the progression of colitis-associated cancer. The study, published Jan. 14, in the journal Cancer Cell, was led by Sarah Spiegel, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Spiegel’s team discovered that increased production of the enzyme sphingosine kinase 1 (SphK1) causes cells lining the intestine to produce more sphingosine-1-phosphate, an associated signaling molecule, which activates a variety of biological mechanisms that lead to chronic intestinal inflammation and cancer’s development. Researchers demonstrated the drug fingolimod decreased expression of SphK1, subsequently interfering with the cancer’s progression, even after tumors were established. “Perhaps the most significant aspect of this study is the therapeutic potential of fingolimod in the treatment of colitis-associated cancer,” says Spiegel, who holds the Mann T. and Sara D. Lowry Chair in Oncology. “Since this drug is already approved for clinical use, we’re hoping to initiate a clinical trial to study its efficacy in patients with colitis-associated cancer.” PREVENTIVE ANTIBIOTIC RECOMMENDED FOR COPD Patients suffering from the chronic lung condition COPD, the United States’ third-leading cause of death and disability, may benefit greatly from a three-times-aweek dose of an antibiotic, according to a study published in the July 26, 2012, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. WENZEL


The study was led by professors Richard P. Wenzel, M.D., former chair of the Department of Internal Medicine, Alpha A. Fowler III, M.D., chair of the Division of Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Medicine, and Michael B. Edmond, M.D., M.P.H., chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases. Investigators reviewed current studies, examined the pharmacology and adverse effects of the antibiotic azithromycin and examined the risks and benefits of a regimen of a thrice-weekly dose. “This approach has the potential to eliminate one-third of the severe exacerbations each year among patients with COPD,” Wenzel said. While the protocol may not be suitable for every patient, Wenzel expects the compelling findings to prompt medical organizations to review their current COPD guidelines.


MECHANISM DISCOVERED THAT COULD REDUCE OBESITY Approximately 68 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, putting them at greater risk for developing cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. An international team of scientists has successfully reversed obesity in mice by manipulating the production of the enzyme tyrosine-protein kinase-2 (Tyk2). Led by Andrew Larner, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the team discovered that Tyk2 helps regulate obesity in mice and humans through the differentiation of the fat tissue brown adipose tissue (BAT). Published in the Dec. 5, 2012, issue of the journal Cell Metabolism, the study is the first to show the relationship between Tyk2 and BAT. “We discovered that Tyk2 levels in mice are regulated by diet. We then tested tissue samples from humans and found that levels of Tyk2 were more than 50 percent lower in obese humans,” said Larner, who holds the Martha Anne Hatcher Distinguished Professor in Oncology and is co-leader of the Cancer Cell Signaling program at VCU’s Massey Cancer Center. “Our findings open new potential avenues for research and development of new pharmacological and nutritional treatments for obesity.”

PAIR OF FAMILY MEDICINE GRANTS TOTAL $1.5 MILLION Daniel R. Longo, Sc.D., professor of family medicine, leads a three-year, $841,000 study supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Investigators will ask people with type 2 Diabetes what information they use to manage their diabetes and make decisions about their LONGO WOOLF health care. “It is one of the first studies on diabetes that is truly patient centered,” Longo said. “We hope to develop reports that will compare how well doctors, clinics and hospitals care for people with diabetes so that they and others in Virginia will have the information they need to make better decisions, which may lead to living better with diabetes.” A second $649,000 grant was awarded from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute to explore patients’ approach to making complex health care decisions. “Despite living in an information age, we know relatively little about how patients want to use information to make decisions,” said Steven Woolf, M.D., professor and director of the VCU Center on Human Needs. His team will survey patients through an online tool – MyPreventiveCare – developed by the Department of Family Medicine and currently used by more than 40,000 primary care patients throughout Virginia. The goal is to learn whether and how primary care patients use scientific information about effectiveness in making decisions about cancer screening. $4.5 MILLION IN NEW GRANT SUPPORT TO PM&R The Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation has received two five-year grant awards from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation and the United States Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. KREUTZER


A $2.2 million grant will enable researchers to develop and evaluate treatment interventions for traumatic brain injury patients. The team will focus on how best to improve the resiliency and adjustment of survivors and addresses the needs of couples. Though experts agree strengthening caregivers can enhance rehabilitation outcomes, more evidence is needed to understand what strategies further recovery. “Our clinical research will be used to help people with traumatic brain injury return to more productive and satisfying lives,” said Jeffrey S. Kreutzer, Ph.D., professor and co-principal investigator. The department also received a $2.5 million grant to expand research in how to best help youth with autism gain and maintain employment. The grant will expand an initial trial at a local hospital to two additional hospitals. “We have learned from our work over the past three years that 88 percent of the youth with autism coming through the nine-month internship have obtained competitive employment,” said Paul Wehman, Ph.D., professor and principal investigator. “We hope to learn whether these findings can be expanded to a larger sample of youth with autism and also whether nine-month internships can positively improve social communication and cognitive behaviors.” UNDERSTANDING HOW MOLECULAR PARASITE REPLICATES, SPREADS DISEASE Staphylococcus aureus, a major cause of hospital- and community-acquired infections, is increasingly resistant to antibiotics. Like other bacteria, its genome constantly changes as it acquires new pieces of DNA, some of which increase its ability to cause disease. One example of such a piece of DNA is a pathogenicity island, referred to as SaPI, which carries certain toxin genes. SaPIs are unusual among pathogenicity islands in that they are highly mobile, using a process that involves the exploitation of bacterial viruses, also known as bacteriophages. Gail E. Christie, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology, studies the interactions between bacteriophages and bacterial genomes. She led the VCU portion of a study that grew out of a longstanding international collaboration with researchers from the New York University Medical Center and Instituto Valenciano de Investigaciones Agraias in Spain. In the Oct. 2, 2012, issue of


the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team described one of the mechanisms SaPI employs to “hijack” a bacterial virus to spread among S. aureus bacteria, directing it to preferentially package the SaPI DNA and carry it to new cells. “Understanding these mechanisms will allow the identification of targets for blocking not only the spread of SaPIs, but of the helper phages themselves - many of which carry additional toxin genes on their own genomes,” said Christie. “This is particularly important because antibiotic treatment can actually induce the replication and spread of SaPIs and potential helper phages.” SOCIAL INTERACTIONS TIED TO BRAIN DEVELOPMENT Social interactions may be critical for proper development of the region of the brain that plays a major role in regulating our personality, according to a study by a national research team published in the December 2012 issue of Nature Neuroscience. The study examined the thin myelin formation in the prefrontal cortex of mice housed alone versus that of mice housed together. The findings demonstrate the importance of social activity and how social isolation may lead to irreversible mental deficits. This understanding may help researchers and clinicians have a better understanding of the processes that regulate brain development and function. The team was led by Patrizia Casaccia, M.D., Ph.D., at the Friedman Brain Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, with researchers from the VCU School of Medicine, the University of Maryland and the University of Buffalo. “This work furthers the idea that brain development is significantly impacted by our environment and our experiences,” said Jeffrey Dupree, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology, who was involved with the study. “Moreover, retardation of this development may not be reversible.” SICKLE CELL: OVERCOMING BARRIERS TO CARE A five-year, $3.1 million grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health supports research in overcoming barriers to health care among adults with sickle cell disease. Wally Smith, M.D., professor of internal medicine and scientific director of VCU’s Center on Health Disparities, is principal investigator. “So many vital health advances never make it into the hands of those who most need them,” Smith said. Researchers have found barriers to health care for adults with sickle cell disease include a large percentage of patients who are not in specialty care and physicians who are not fully familiar with Hydroxyurea, the first and only FDA-approved remittive drug for sickle cell disease. Smith will collaborate with Eastern Virginia Medical School to test the feasibility of a statewide communitybased strategy to assist vulnerable sickle cell disease adults in obtaining specialty care. NEUROPROTECTIVE AGENT DOESN’T HELP TBI PATIENTS A supplement used worldwide to enhance the memory and to help in stroke and head trauma recovery provided no benefit to adults recovering from traumatic brain injury. Findings from a national multisite clinical trial were published in the Nov. 21, 2012, issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association. The Citicholine Brain Injury Treatment trial brought researchers from across the United States together to determine if dietary consumption of Citicholine – a chemical in the nervous system needed for production of neurotransmitters – would lessen nerve damage, speed recovery and improve outcomes for patients who suffered an acute traumatic brain injury. “This work showed that taking Citicholine alone after a TBI is not helpful,” said Randall E. Merchant, Ph.D., professor of anatomy and neurobiology and neurosurgery, a co-investigator in the study. “Because TBI is a complicated injury with many different mechanisms accounting for the injury to brain cells, we should test and look to drugs or hormones which have multiple effects on brain cells and chemical reactions in the brain.”


NATIONAL PROGRAM TESTING HOUSE CALLS The VCU Medical Center is one of 19 sites selected in 2012 to participate in the national Independence at Home (IAH) demonstration to test the advantages of house calls for elderly patients too ill or disabled to visit physicians. Peter Boling, M.D., professor and chair of the Division of Geriatric Medicine, helped lead the work to create legislation authorizing the IAH, and his team collaborates with the University of Pennsylvania and Medstar Washington Hospital Center to form the mid-Atlantic IAH Consortium. “By going to these patients, you make it much easier for them to have the care that they need, when they need it, both for chronic illnesses and for newly developing problems,” Boling said. “This program can help keep our patients from needlessly riding in ambulances and going to emergency rooms when their conditions can safely be managed at home, which could also save the Medicare program billions of dollars each year.” The IAH program was approved based on practice-based experience and data, some from VCU House Calls, which has provided in-home primary care to more than 5,000 patients during the past 29 years. NEW CONCEPT IN FIELD OF VOLTAGE-GATED ION CHANNELS Researchers have uncovered a way by which the activity of voltage-gated potassium channels are regulated, according to a study published in the Sept. 4, 2012, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The findings may allow researchers to better understand how external signals like hormones and neurotransmitters modulate excitability of cells. The research was led by Diomedes E. Logothetis, Ph.D., who holds the Bower Chair of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics. His work seeks to understand the fundamental mechanisms by which membrane lipid-protein interactions regulate the activity of proteins, such as potassium channels. This study found phospholipid phosphatidylinositol-bisphosphate (PIP2) to be responsible for regulating the activation mechanism of potassium channels that reside in cells and shape electrical impulses to control heart rate and brain signaling. Over 30 years ago, investigators realized the importance of a helical linker that connects the voltage sensor with the channel’s pore. How this helical linker regulates the activity of voltage-sensitive potassium channels has remained a mystery. “Our study showed that this helical structure interacts with PIP2 tethering it to the membrane and regulating how much the voltage sensor can pull on the pore to open it,” Logothetis said.

Understanding Molecular Pathways of Autoimmune Diseases Teamwork between a pair of transcription factors may be responsible for regulating the functioning of Th17 cells, which when found in excessive amounts are believed to play a major role in many autoimmune diseases. The findings were reported in the Nov. 16 issue of the journal Science by a national team of researchers. Carlos R. Escalante, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, created atomic models that illustrated how a pair of transcription factors, IRF4 and BATF, can cooperatively bind to different sites on DNA’s double helix. Transcription factors are known to control the first step of gene expression and, depending on where they bind to DNA, are critical for the differentiation of T helper 17 cells. The NIH-funded study was led by researchers at Genetech, Inc., and included researchers from half a dozen research centers.

e h t f o h c r a e S d r i b n g n o I eaky S Sn by Nan Johnson

with Darrell Peterson sneaky, but everybody can see birds.”

In October 2012 Peterson was recognized with VCU’s Billy R. Martin Award for Innovation, for inventing a test for equine infectious anemia (EIA) that delivers rapid results for the contagious disease, which is caused by a virus similar to HIV in humans and for which there is no treatment.


“Receiving an award named after Billy Martin, and thereby being in some way compared to him, is a great compliment,” Peterson said. Martin, who died in 2008, was the former chair of the Department DARRELL PETERSON’S of Pharmacology and FASCINATION WITH BIRDS TOOK HIM TO PERU IN 2011. HE WAS Toxicology in the School of ACCOMPANIED BY HIS DAUGHTER, Medicine. AN ARCHAEOLOGIST WHO HAD


rom the sound of a Cardinal welcoming spring with a gentle melody to the unforgettable shriek of the Amazonian jungle’s Screaming Piha, birds and their songs are a source of mystery and magic for millions of Americans.

Bird watching is such a popular pastime around the world that an entire website — — is dedicated to sharing the recordings of bird songs and sounds captured by casual birders and dedicated ornithologists alike. Darrell L. Peterson, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, was the first to record and share the sound of the elusive Swainson’s Warbler (Limnothlypis swainsonii). Uploaded to Xeno-Canto in 2002, his file includes a sonogram as well as a sound recording of this nearly undetected North American bird.


Peterson’s research interests are in the structure and function of viral proteins with current major emphasis on proteins of the hepatitis B virus, several retroviruses and influenza viruses.


Combining personal interests with professional work may be a dream for some, but for Peterson, the two are a natural fit. “I work on hepatitis viruses and we’re using some bird proteins for vaccine development,” he said. “Sera from birds is used to screen for hepatitis viruses. Say, if I wanted to go to Iceland, I could screen samples from colonial nesting birds or eggs from their colonies and possibly find some useful bird hepatitis viruses for our research.”

“They’re sneaky,” says Peterson, who has been a bird enthusiast since 1966. “The Great Dismal Swamp is one of the greatest places in the United States to see one and I’ve taken people from all over the world there.”

Peterson’s travels have taken him all over the world to capture the songs of birds. “I started recording them in the early 1970s. Back then I used a reel-to-reel tape recorder with a parabolic microphone shaped like a satellite dish, then I went to minidisk recordings.”

Peterson credits his youth in Lexington, Mo., for his interest in biology. “I spent my formative years with my grandparents on a farm. Outdoor stuff is what you did back then — you played outside.”

Today’s digital devices make it easy to move around, edit and store large amounts of recordings, he explains. And with 450 species of birds in Virginia alone, Peterson needs plenty of space for his recordings and notes.

As a biologist, he considers himself a “lab person” but he says an interest in fieldwork has always been with him. “I’ve always liked biology in general, but to tell you the truth, what triggered the bird thing, I guess, is that they’re relatively easy to see unlike fish where you have to go underwater. Reptiles are kind of

Peterson draws a clear correlation between his hobby and profession. “Research is about identifying things and collecting data,” he says. The same can be said of traveling the world in search of a sneaky songbird.


Go online to see pictures and hear the sounds from Peterson’s far-ranging travels.

DEAN’S DISCOVERY REPORT Volume 12, Number 1 The Dean’s Discovery Report is published twice a year by Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine on the Medical College of Virginia Campus. Reader comments and suggestions are welcome; please call (800) 332-8813 or (804) 828-4800, e-mail or write to P.O. Box 980022, Richmond, VA 23298-0022. The Dean’s Discovery Initiative provides an opportunity for donors to transform the research environment in the School of Medicine. Through philanthropy, alumni and friends can support the school’s research endeavor in ways that traditional funding sources do not.

Dean: Jerome F. Strauss III, M.D., Ph.D. Produced by the School of Medicine’s Alumni and Development Office: Associate Dean for Development, Tom Holland; Editor, Erin Lucero. Contributing Writers: Kristen Coulter, Joriel C. Foltz and Nan Johnson Photographers: Allen Jones, Thomas Kojcsich, Kevin Schindler, Karl Steinbrenner and VCU Creative Services Graphic Design: Zeigler|Dacus © Virginia Commonwealth University, 2013.

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Dean's Discovery Report SPring 2013  

research newsletter of the School of Medicine on VCU's MCV Campus

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