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School of Medicine discoveries

08
2016

Door Opens Wide for Biostatistician

You might not picture a biostatistician on the front lines of saving lives. But Maureen McBride, PhD’95 (BIOS), has parlayed her training into a high-powered career at UNOS, the United Network for Organ Sharing, the nation’s transplant network.

Maureen McBride, PhD’95 (BIOS)

Maureen McBride, PhD’95 (BIOS), says she’s “privileged to be in a position where I feel like the work I do helps patients every single day.”

As chief contract operations officer, McBride is part of a six-person C-suite at UNOS, a private nonprofit organization that operates the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network under contract with the federal government. They are tasked with operating the 24-hour computerized organ sharing system that matches donated organs to patients registered on the national organ transplant waiting list. The organization also seeks to increase understanding of the transplant system through education and improve transplant success rates through research and policy. It’s just a stone’s throw from VCU’s MCV Campus.

Her job is an important – and busy – one. “One of my primary responsibilities is to work with our partners in the transplant community and our funders at HRSA [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration],” says McBride. “We make sure everybody’s on the same page with the different projects we have going on.” In addition to contract operations, she oversees three departments at UNOS: member quality, policy and the 24/7 organ placement division.

As she was finishing her doctorate, McBride heard about the opportunity for a senior biostatistician at UNOS. Its mission lured her away from thoughts of joining the pharmaceutical industry, a career path that interested many classmates. “It was a very different kind of opportunity. I knew I’d enjoy the direct connection with people in the field. I knew I’d have opportunity to work with people on national policy-making committees, to give presentations, write manuscripts and do collaborative research.”

In 2006, McBride became director of research, providing expertise in research, analysis and performance measurement conducted by UNOS staff. In 2014, she was promoted to her current position.

She’s pleased to help advance organ availability and transplantation through education, technology and policy development.

“I started as biostatistician involved in research and data, but now my scope has broadened to include policy development, performance improvement and compliance. Our organization is growing, medicine is evolving, and with a foundational education, you can go many different directions,” she says.
“The depth of her knowledge about how UNOS and transplantation work is amazing,” says Brian Shepard, CEO of UNOS. “Whenever I’m trying to understand something that nobody else seems to understand, I go to Maureen.”

It’s a time of growth at UNOS. The field of transplantation is expanding rapidly, with transplants in the U.S. up 6 percent last year and trending toward a 10 percent uptick this year. “I feel privileged to be in a position where I feel like the work I do helps patients every single day,” McBride notes.

McBride appreciates the long-standing relationship between VCU and UNOS. Noted transplant surgeons H.M. Lee, M.D., and David Hume, M.D., helped push the passing of the National Organ Transplant Act that founded the organization now known as UNOS. VCU is also a source of interns and hires for UNOS.

McBride’s top priority remains focusing on the lifesaving mission of UNOS. “There are currently 120,000 people on the waiting list,” she says. “But we’re only going to do about 30,000 transplants this year. Demand always far exceeds the supply.” She encourages everyone to make their wishes regarding organ donation known to their loved ones.

By Lisa Crutchfield

08
2016

Personal Touch: Ph.D. student Amanda Gentry forges one-on-one connections in Australia

Ph.D. student Amanda Gentry

Ph.D. student Amanda Gentry traveled to Australia to study data from the Brisbane Longitudinal Twins Study. While there, she also visited the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.

Amanda Gentry flew halfway around the world to collect complex data for her dissertation, but the long journey proved even more important in a very personal way.

“I got to work one-on-one with the most amazing scientists,” she said. “In the age of technology, sometimes the value of face time is not appreciated. I think people forget that science is largely a creative endeavor. You need personal interactions to get the creative juices going.”

Gentry, who this fall starts her fifth year as a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biostatistics, traveled to Australia in June to work with scientists collecting and studying data from the Brisbane Longitudinal Twins Study. Gentry’s work examines current methods for analyzing personality, drug use data, and high-dimensional genomic data.

“I’m developing methods to try and determine what personality and DNA measures are related to marijuana use,” she said. “Can you predict someone’s marijuana use based on the information we have on their personality, their demographics and their genes? That’s pretty cool stuff.”

She spent more than two weeks at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane working alongside world renowned scientists, some of whom have spent their entire careers collecting and researching the data from the twins study.

“Here I was this stranger, and these brilliant scientists welcomed me,” said Gentry, who also attended the Behavior Genetics Association conference while in Brisbane. “To sit across from them and be able to ask questions was very humbling.”

Gentry’s research is funded through a research education grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, led by Michael Neale, Ph.D, at VCU’s Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics. At VIPBG, she began collaborating with Nathan Gillespie, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry, who worked alongside Gentry in Brisbane. Both Neale and Gillespie are part of Gentry’s dissertation committee.

“Amanda works very hard and is intellectually curious,” said Neale, a professor of psychiatry and VIPBG’s associate director. “She’s stellar really. I have no doubt she will go on to have a very successful career.”

Ph.D. student Amanda Gentry

“In the age of technology, sometimes the value of face time is not appreciated,” said Ph.D. student Amanda Gentry. “I think people forget that science is largely a creative endeavor.” This photo taken by Gentry shows Brisbane in the evening.

While she is not sure of the exact path she will take, Gentry hopes to return to Australia soon.

“I never thought I’d have the opportunity to travel there,” she said. “If not for people like [Neale and Gillespie], I never would have had this type of opportunity. They have really taken me under their wing, and I am so appreciative.”

While much of her time was devoted to research in the lab, Gentry did make time to experience the countryside. She enjoyed local markets, bookstores and shops. She also visited the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, where she got to hold two koalas, as well as North Stradbroke Island just off the coast.

“It was the experience of a lifetime,” she said. “Not only did I learn from some of the brightest minds out there, but I got to see so much of this beautiful country.”

Gentry, 27, grew up in Richmond and graduated from Bryan College in Tennessee in 2011. She worked as a pharmacy technician for a year before coming to the MCV Campus.

“I was drawn to biostatistics because it’s a combination of two things I love – mathematics and medicine,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a doctor because I can’t stand the sight of blood. I’m much more comfortable dealing with numbers. I can’t wait to see where this all leads.”

By Janet Showalter

08
2016

Peds ID Fellow Jeff Donowitz helps pinpoint problems, find cures

Peds ID Fellow Jeff Donowitz

Peds ID Fellow Jeff Donowitz recently wrapped up a two-year study that took him half a world away in a search for answers to problems of malnutrition, stunted growth and oral vaccine failure seen in millions of children.

A two-year research effort took Jeff Donowitz, M.D., half a world away in a search for answers to problems of malnutrition, stunted growth and oral vaccine failure seen in millions of children.

Now, armed with fresh data from the study, he’s ready to move forward, continuing his research on how overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine is damaging the guts of children in low- and middle-income countries.

In 2014, Donowitz, an infectious diseases fellow in VCU’s Department of Pediatrics, was one of just seven pediatricians in the U.S. chosen by the Association of Medical School Pediatric Department Chairs for the Pediatric Scientist Development Program. Over the past two years, he traveled frequently to Dhaka, Bangladesh, seeking to identify a viable cure.

Donowitz’s interest in international public health medicine was ignited by trips to Haiti when he was younger. Later, as he was looking for potential research topics, his interest was piqued by environmental enteropathy, a low-level chronic inflammation in the GI tract that’s found in a large number of children living in unsanitary conditions.

“The effects of environmental enteropathy are very, very broad,” he says. “We have limited understanding of exactly what about it is affecting growth stunting, cognitive delays or oral vaccine failures, so that is partially what we are trying to figure out.”

Peds ID Fellow Jeff Donowitz

A Bangladeshi child reminds Donowitz not to step in the open sewer. Environmental enteropathy is a low-level chronic inflammation in the GI tract that’s found in a large number of children living in unsanitary conditions.

His fellowship afforded him the opportunity to examine the issue under the mentorship of William Petri, M.D., Ph.D., the respected chief of Infectious Diseases and International Health at the University of Virginia. Bangladesh has world-class research facilities, including the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, notes Donowitz.

He hypothesized that small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) could, in part, explain those problems in poor communities. “When I started, there were only a few studies looking at SIBO in low-income countries, and most of them were just describing that it was there in large numbers. That’s where I got into the field.”

In his two-year fellowship, Donowitz says his hypothesis proved credible. Overgrowth, which was found in one in six children tested, was indeed associated with inflammation in the GI tract.

But other findings surprised him. “I had thought maybe SIBO was related to diarrheal disease but what we showed was that it’s really related to poor sanitation. So what is it about poor sanitation that leads to overgrowth in these children?”

Donowitz has a hypothesis about that, which he is exploring in a new, larger study of 275 Bangladeshi children who he is following from birth to age 2. “We’ll be measuring SIBO at multiple time points.” With that, he hopes to identify opportunities when treatment will be beneficial for the large numbers of children affected by SIBO.

Peds ID Fellow Jeff Donowitz

Armed with his study data, Donowitz is ready to move forward, continuing his research on how overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine is damaging the guts of children in low- and middle-income countries.

“The nice thing about SIBO is that you can treat it with relatively low-cost antibiotics,” he notes. “But the downside to that is antimicrobial resistance. The idea of giving antibiotics on a large scale to a lot of people is not very attractive.”

Not only is Donowitz advancing knowledge about childhood disease, he’s proved to himself that he can secure funding. That’s important, as this fall he’ll be submitting grant requests to continue his work.

Donowitz has a message to prospective researchers. “I think a lot of times, young, smart people get put off of it because they hear that funding is hard to come by. Don’t be dissuaded by the first person who says there’s no money in it. It’s extremely rewarding.”

By Lisa Crutchfield

17
2016

In focus: medical student Trammell Cox helps thousands see

The Class of 2018’s Trammell Cox

This August the Class of 2018’s Trammell Cox is in Cambodia, where he’s supplied more than 13,000 pairs of glasses over the past six years.

Trammell Cox has a vision: to help others see.

While studying at VCU’s School of Medicine (and serving as president of the Class of 2018), Cox runs a nonprofit that helps provide eyeglasses for countless patients overseas.

The organization, Seeing is Believing, began on a small scale with a few pairs of reading glasses. Six years and more than 13,000 pairs of glasses later, it’s still going strong as Cox returned to southeast Asia in August to continue what he started as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2008.

As he was teaching in Cambodia on his mission trip, he realized that some students weren’t participating. “Often we’d ask people to read but they’d say they couldn’t. For a while we assumed that it was that they never learned to read. But as we probed a little bit, we found out it was because they couldn’t see.”

Cox and colleagues went out and purchased reading glasses for many people. At about $1 a pair, it didn’t seem too daunting. But then he realized how many people needed them.

Trammell Cox, M’18

“The majority of people in Cambodia live day-to-day, using the money they earn throughout the day to buy dinner for the family at night,” says Trammell Cox, M’18. “As a result, many can’t save enough money for a simple pair of prescription glasses.”

On one of his twice-yearly calls home, he described the situation to his younger brother, Parker. When Cox’s family came to see him in Cambodia, they delivered cash and donated eyeglasses that Parker had collected as part of his Eagle Scout project.

For about $100, the brothers conducted vision screenings and provided eyewear to children in an orphanage.

After returning home in 2010, Cox, his wife, Jen, and his brother founded Seeing is Believing. At least once a year, they go back to help some of the world’s poorest people.

“The majority of people in Cambodia live day-to-day, using the money they earn throughout the day to buy dinner for the family at night,” Cox says. “As a result, many can’t save enough money for a simple pair of prescription glasses.”

Poverty is rampant in Cambodia, which still struggles with aftereffects of dictator Pol Pot’s genocide and policies. Cox notes that Pol Pot directed the killing of any intellectuals he deemed a threat to his organization. Eyeglasses became a symbol of intelligence, and those who wore them were targeted by the Khmer Rouge regime.

Fluent in Cambodian, Cox has established a network to support the nonprofit.

“Through our connections, we identify those with the greatest need, and those who can benefit the most. We then work with the Cambodian optometrists to screen them. Rather than undermine the local Cambodian market, we support and encourage economic growth by relying on the optometrists to make the prescription glasses, which we buy from them.

“We can provide those in need with an eye screening and brand new pair of prescription glasses for about $5 a pair.”

Trammell Cox, M’18

“We’re giving glasses and sight,” says Trammell Cox, M’18, “but also vision.”

Cox said his School of Medicine classmates and faculty have been supportive, and many have donated to Seeing is Believing. His enthusiasm and generosity have made an impression, said Assistant Dean for Curriculum Lelia Brinegar, Ed.D. “When I think of Trammell, some of the first words that come to mind are supportive, encouraging and friendly. He is the first person to step forward when a request for volunteers is announced.”

Cox is visiting Cambodia and neighboring Laos in August and will return to VCU’s MCV Campus for his third-year of medical school. He isn’t sure what type of medicine he’ll practice when he graduates; while ophthalmology is a possibility, he’s still considering his options.

But he’ll definitely continue to help others see. “We chose the name Seeing is Believing because it has such a positive connotation. That’s the effect we believe sight can have. We’re giving glasses and sight, but also vision.”

By Lisa Crutchfield

Donate cash or eyewear:
visit http://www.seeingisbelieving.vision/donations/
for details.

26
2016

Longtime Microbiology faculty member Deborah Lebman endows scholarship via her estate plans

Deborah Lebman, Ph.D.

Deborah Lebman, Ph.D.

She makes a difference in students’ lives every day. Now she’s laid the groundwork for her impact to continue even after she leaves the MCV Campus.

Associate Professor Deborah Lebman, Ph.D., joined the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in 1989. A self-proclaimed “fan of our students,” for 18 years she’s directed the immunology course for the medical students and with the advent of the medical school’s new C3 curriculum became co-director of the Infection and Immunity Division.

For several years, Lebman has been a member of the medical school’s admissions committee where, she says, she sees what a great need there is for scholarships.

Earlier this year, she decided to take action and made provisions in her estate plans to create a medical student scholarship.

“I believe that our greatest impact comes from what we give to others,” said Lebman. “Creating a scholarship fund serves the dual purpose of expressing my gratitude for the opportunity to teach the next generation of physicians and giving someone else the opportunity to leave a mark on society.”

Her bequest was featured in the July edition of VCU’s philanthropy email newsletter, Black & Gold & You, that described how bequests can promote academic excellence and strengthen VCU as a diverse premier urban research institution.

The newsletter outlines some benefits associated with bequests:

• Easy to make — You retain your assets throughout your lifetime.

• Revocable — You can make changes to beneficiaries of your estate throughout your lifetime.

• Flexible — Your bequest can be directed to support the university as a whole or a school/program that is important to you.

Photography by Will Gilbert

26
2016

“The best year of my life:” Neurosurgery resident conducts brain tumor research in New Zealand

Lisa Feldman, M.D.

Supported by the most prestigious fellowship in neurosurgery, resident Lisa Feldman spent a year doing research in New Zealand.

As a sixth-year neurosurgery resident, Lisa Feldman, M.D., Ph.D., aches for her patients battling aggressive brain tumors.

Despite surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the average life expectancy for patients diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, the most aggressive type of brain tumor, is 15 months.

“We have to do better than that,” she said. “It’s so frustrating. I see so many patients suffering.”

Thanks to a prestigious fellowship and numerous collaboration efforts, Feldman is feeling optimistic about the future. The Chicago native was selected last year for the William P. Van Wagenen Fellowship, which awarded her a $120,000 stipend and $15,000 in research support. She used the funds to travel to New Zealand, where she studied perfluorocarbons as a new oxygen delivery therapy in hopes of reversing the death of healthy cells that results from radiation treatment of brain cancers.

“Our preliminary findings are very exciting,” said Feldman, who just returned to Richmond. “We are discovering that nanoparticles do improve tumor sensitivity to radiation.”

Feldman worked alongside physicians, scientists and researchers at the University of Auckland and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research in Wellington. She is also collaborating with Washington University in St. Louis and her home Neurosurgery Department on the MCV Campus.

“The year I spent in New Zealand was extraordinary in that I had the opportunity to work with some of the brightest minds in the world,” she said. “It was the best year of my life.”

The teams have landed two more grants from the local government in New Zealand and the University of Otago to replicate their findings. Feldman is hopeful the next step will be clinical trials.

“Now that I’m back, we have weekly Skype calls,” she said. “Collaboration is absolutely crucial. There’s no way we could dream of accomplishing this without working together.”

Lisa Feldman, M.D.

In addition to studying how perfluorocarbons could help patients battling aggressive brain tumors, Feldman also spent time exploring New Zealand and says, “The country is absolutely breathtakingly gorgeous.”

Feldman is the Department of Neurosurgery’s first Van Wagenen Fellowship winner. The fellowship was established by the estate of Van Wagenen, one of the founders and first president of the Harvey Cushing Society, now the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.

“This is a big deal,” said R. Scott Graham, M’92, H’98, director of the Department of Neurosurgery’s residency program. “It’s the most prestigious fellowship to win in neurosurgery.

“Lisa has the perfect personality to get an award like this because she is so collaborative. She’s good at searching out people who have the skills that match her interests. She knows that you can accomplish so much more as a team than on your own.”

Feldman, 38, holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from McGill University in Montreal. While conducting research for her Ph.D. in neuroscience at Montreal Neurological Institute, she regularly performed brain surgery on lab mice. It wasn’t long before she had an epiphany.

“I realized I really enjoyed operating,” she said. “I enjoyed the procedure. That’s what motivated me to go to medical school. I thought it would be much more fulfilling to help people.”

She earned her medical degree from Rush Medical College in Chicago in 2010 before coming to the MCV Campus for her residency. She is currently completely a three-month rotation at McGuire VA Medical Center, where she is mainly performing spine surgery. She will return to the MCV Campus in September to concentrate on brain surgery.

“That’s where my passion is – coming up with better ways to help my patients,” said Feldman, who will complete her residency in July 2018. “I am so grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had here. I’ve learned so much. It’s a dream come true.”

By Janet Showalter