Jump to content
School of Medicine Virginia Commonwealth University VCU Medical Center
School of Medicine discoveries


Faculty honors and news archives


Saving football: neuroscientist Ray Colello’s research garners nationwide media attention

Ray Colello

Ray Colello, Ph.D.

Could lightweight, rare earth magnets reduce the force of a head-to-head collision on the football field?

That’s the question that’s occupying Ray Colello, Ph.D., this NFL season.

“Helmet to helmet collisions are considered one of the primary means by which concussions occur in football,” says the associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology, who’s also an avid football fan. “Repeated concussions can lead to severe brain disease, and the average collegiate football player will take over 500 hits to the head over a season of games and practices.”

On Nov. 15, he presented findings at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience showing neodymium magnets can generate repulsive forces of over 300-fold their weight that could be used to reduce the impact forces generated during helmet-to-helmet collision.

The proposition has caught the interest of the science press and, in the days following his presentation, he’s done more than two dozen interviews with news outlets like NPR, the journal Science and Scientific American.

Colello’s research has been supported by the VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund. His next step will be to field-test the magnets by fitting them inside football helmets worn by crash-test dummies.

Such tests could mimic the indirect hits and rotational forces that come into play in a football game. “We don’t want to trade concussions with spinal cord injuries,” Colello told the journal Science.

Read more about Colello’s discovery.



Washington Post talks with Peter Boling about the enduring value of house calls

Peter Boling

Peter Boling, M.D., H’84

Since 1984, Peter Boling, M.D., H’84, has been making house calls to visit frail, elderly patients who would find it difficult to make it to the doctor’s office for an appointment.

He’s convinced it’s the way to help them avoid costly hospital stays – and save the health care system money in the meantime.

Washington Post reporter Jeff Guo recently spent a day with him to learn more about the enduring value of house calls.

“The idea is to deliver health care where it’s best for the patient,” Boling told Guo. “If the clinic is the right place for them, then come to the clinic. If it’s hard for them to come to the clinic, short-term or long-term, we’ll go to them.”

All medical students go on a house call with Boling’s team. One of his goals, he tells the Washington Post “is to have established an economic model that makes this a desirable mode of practice.”

A professor of internal medicine and chair of the Division of Geriatric Medicine, Boling was instrumental in developing the Independence at Home Act that is part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. His is one of 19 sites nationwide to participate in a demonstration to test the advantages of house calls for elderly patients too ill or disabled to visit their physicians.

Read the Washington Post story: One doctor’s old-fashioned idea to cut health care spending: house calls.


Ken Kendler is inaugural speaker at Oxford Loebel Lectures

Chair of surgery

Ken Kendler, M.D., outside Oxford Martin Lecture Theatre

In its inaugural year, the Oxford Loebel Lectures and Research Programme featured Kenneth S. Kendler, M.D., in a pair of presentations on Oct. 15 and 16 at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Rather than focusing on the biological, psychological or social as independent factors, the Oxford Loebel Lectures were established to encourage researchers to consider how those factors interact in their contribution to mental illness.

Kendler’s research is pertinent to that approach. Many of his more than 800 publications address the relationship between biological, psychological and social contributors to psychiatric and substance use disorders.

In a pair of well-attended lectures, Kendler first described how recent studies in the genetic epidemiology and molecular genetics illustrate the complex causal pathways to mental illness. In his second appearance at the Oxford Martin School Lecture Theatre, he proposed new goals for psychiatric research and a new framework for conceptualizing and classifying disorders.

Chair of surgery

Ken Kendler, M.D., presenting at the Oxford Loebel Lectures and Research Programme

Kendler is the Rachel Brown Banks Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and a professor of human genetics in the VCU School of Medicine. A member of the Institute of Medicine, he also is director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics and editor of the journal Psychological Medicine. Involved in both DSM-III-R and DSM-IV, he chaired the Scientific Review Committee for DSM-5.

The Oxford Loebel Lectures and Research Programme were established with the support of J. Pierre Loebel, a clinical professor emeritus at the University of Washington, and his wife Felice who was also on the faculty at the University of Washington, in the Department of English.

Videos of Kendler’s lectures are available online at the OLLRP website.


Alumna Marcella Fierro’s continued service to forensic medicine featured in Richmond Academy of Medicine newsletter

Marcella F. Fierro, M.D.

Fierro retired in 2007 from her post as the state’s Chief Medical Examiner, where she investigated the results of some of the nation’s most notorious crimes.

Retirement hasn’t hindered how alumna Marcella F. Fierro, M.D., is impacting the future of forensic medicine. Following a 34-year career and serving as Virginia’s Chief Medical Examiner, Fierro has remained a steady influence in her field. Recently featured in the summer issue of the Richmond Academy of Medicine’s quarterly newsletter, Fierro describes her current work educating others and advocating on behalf of the profession that she dedicated her life to serving.

Fierro’s recent work includes the 2009 publication of a book she co-wrote with her colleagues on the NAS Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Community: “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.” Fierro shared her thoughts on the publication of the book for the Richmond Academy of Medicine’s Ramifications, “If you asked me what’s the most important achievement of my career, this had to be one of them.” The book outlines basic infrastructural necessities in the field of forensic medicine and is being used to garner support from Congress to address those needs.

Widely known as the inspiration for Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta book series, Fierro also has appeared on TV including a recent PBS special on New York’s first trained medical examiner. Asked how she’s coped with what she’s witnessed as Virginia’s CME, Fierro compared it to trauma surgeons and other physicians who help accident victims. She told Ramifications: “You realize what the patient needs is not your emotions or your outrage. What the patient needs is your care, and no one but you can provide it. The discipline is you know you can do something—you can speak for that patient.”

Fierro has multiple connections to the medical school. She completed her residency and fellowship training with the School of Medicine in 1973 and 1974 respectively. She also served on faculty and as the chairman of the Department of Legal Medicine and Pathology until her retirement in 2008.

Read more about her recent activities and her plans for the future in the Ramifications’ summer issue, page 14.

By Eleana M. Legree


Vigneshwar Kasirajan named Chair of Surgery

Chair of surgery

Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D.

Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D., has been named Chair of the Department of Surgery effective immediately. Kasirajan joined the MCV Campus in 2000. A professor of surgery and chair of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, he has served as interim chair of the department since July 1, 2013.

Kasirajan has transplanted over 150 donor hearts in his career and is also one of the pioneers in the surgical implantation of artificial hearts and other mechanical assist devices. In 2006, he led the first surgical team on the East Coast to implant the SynCardia Total Artificial Heart, the only device of its kind approved by the FDA. His work in this field has helped establish VCU as one of the leaders in the realm of artificial hearts.

“Dr. Kasirajan has helped to create a vibrant environment at VCU,” said Jerome F. Strauss III, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the School of Medicine. “In addition to his work with transplant patients, he is at the forefront of a new frontier in cardiac surgery that includes artificial hearts and mechanical assist devices. As the lead investigator on a number of national clinical trials, he is addressing some of the most urgent issues in cardiac surgery.”

Based upon his experience and success with artificial hearts, Kasirajan was selected to be the lead investigator of a national clinical trial for the Freedom Driver, a small, portable air compressor that keeps artificial hearts pumping and allows patients to leave the hospital.

Kasirajan earned his medical degree at Madras Medical College, Madras, India and completed his internship and residency at Government General Hospital in Madras. His postgraduate medical education and training continued at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, in Cleveland, Ohio, as chief resident in general surgery, followed by a fellowship in cardiothoracic transplantation and mechanical assist devices and appointment as administrative chief resident in thoracic and cardiovascular surgery.


Two Pharmacology and Toxicology faculty honored by NIDA

A pair of professors from the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology have been selected as 2014 winners of awards of excellence from the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s International Program.

William L. Dewey, Ph.D., professor and department chair, received a special recognition award for excellence in scientific accomplishments and for his devoted service to the addiction research community. Charles O’Keeffe, M.B.A., professor, received the Award of Excellence in International Leadership for his role in advising three U.S. presidents on international health and drug policy issues and as a frequent consultant to the World Health Organization and other U.N. agencies.

The NIDA International Program works with colleagues from around the world to find evidence-based solutions to the public health problems of drug abuse, addiction and drug-related HIV/AIDS. Its Awards of Excellence winners are selected based on contributions to areas essential to the mission of the NIDA International Program: mentoring, international leadership and collaborative research. The awards were announced on June 14 at the 19th annual NIDA International Forum in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

“The 2014 Awards of Excellence winners are dedicated and experienced leaders in the international effort to advance drug abuse research and training,” said Steven W. Gust, Ph.D., director of the NIDA International Program. “This year’s winners have helped to prepare international scientists to work together across international borders and to lead the way for key scientific breakthroughs.”


William L. Dewey, Ph.D.

William L. Dewey, Ph.D.
The Louis S. and Ruth S. Harris Professor and Chair
Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology

Dewey’s research – funded by the National Institutes of Health for more than 45 years – focuses on the mechanisms of action of opioids and marijuana that change brain function and contribute to tolerance, dependence and addiction. He helped discover the role of endogenous opioids in sudden infant death syndrome and also investigates the effects of drugs on pain, cardiovascular alterations and respiratory depression.

He founded and leads the nonprofit Friends of NIDA, a coalition of individuals, scientific and professional societies and patient groups that supports the work of the institute. He has twice served as president of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence and received the CPDD Distinguished Service Award in 2009. NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D., presented Dewey with the NIDA Public Service Award in 2004, the same year he received the Commonwealth of Virginia Lifetime Achievement Award in Science. Dewey received the VCU Presidential Medallion in 2012.

“While Dr. Dewey’s scientific contributions are significant, his service to the addiction research community is extraordinary,” said Gust. “His innovative educational briefings for members of Congress and their aides provide science-based information about addiction that helps improve U.S. drug policy.”


Charles O’Keeffe, M.B.A.

Charles O’Keeffe, M.B.A.
Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and in the Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies

In addition to advising three U.S. presidents on international health and drug policy issues, O’Keeffe served as deputy director for international affairs of the Office of Drug Abuse Policy under President Jimmy Carter. He played a key role in securing U.S. approval for the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances and served on U.S. delegations to the World Health Assembly and the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs. He has been a frequent consultant to the World Health Organization and other U.N. agencies.

During his career as a pharmaceutical company executive, O’Keeffe worked with NIDA scientists and government officials in France and the U.S. to secure approval for buprenorphine to treat opioid dependence. He also developed the first abuse-resistant packaging for take-home doses of methadone and ran the largest clinical toxicology laboratory in the United States. At VCU, O’Keeffe worked with colleagues from King’s College London and the University of Adelaide in Australia to create the International Programme in Addiction Studies, an online master’s degree program.

“Professor O’Keeffe has worked tirelessly to educate policymakers, law enforcement officials and health care professionals around the globe about addiction policy and treatment,” said Gust. “His work with the International Programme in Addiction Studies prepares its international students to become leaders in translating addiction research into effective treatment, prevention and policy.”

Three other individuals were awarded 2014 NIDA International Awards of Excellence. Dennis McCarty, Ph.D., a professor at Oregon Health & Sciences University, was honored for Excellence in Mentoring. The award for Excellence in Collaborative Research went to Marek C. Chawarski, Ph.D., Yale School of Medicine and Vicknasingam B Kasinather, Ph.D., Universiti Sains Malaysia.