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New program supporting cardiac research launches with help of alumni reviewers

William Miles, M'77, H'80, external reviewer for the Pauley Pilot Research Grants Program

William Miles, M’77, H’80, served as an external reviewer for the Pauley Pilot Research Grants Program.

Pauley Heart Center physicians and scientists have long sought novel solutions to improving cardiovascular health. Now, donors are helping to fund promising early-stage research through the Pauley Pilot Research Grants Program.

“Despite the global realization that cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death worldwide, efforts to increase research funding to improve awareness, clinical outcomes and quality of life in patients with cardiovascular disease continue to fall short of meeting the demands,” says Pauley researcher Fadi Salloum, PhD’05 (PHIS). “With continuous budget cuts to major funding sources including the National Institutes of Health, promising new and mid-career investigators, in particular, are facing major challenges to secure grant funding for innovative research.”

The pilot grants provide funding for research proposals that meet three criteria: an innovative idea to improve cardiovascular health, a project that is feasible in 12 to 18 months and the potential to attract additional funding.

The first grant applications were due on Sept. 19 — in honor of the birthday of heart center benefactor Stan Pauley. Housestaff alumnus Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., H’07, recruited an external review committee composed of alumni, retired faculty of the heart center and international experts.

William Miles, M’77, H’80, chief of electrophysiology at the University of Florida, calls serving on the committee “an honor.”

“All the institutions I have gone to have given me something in return,” he says. “MCV marked the beginning of my medical career. It provided a really broad exposure to all of medicine through an active emergency room and diverse patient population. If I’m invited to serve as a reviewer, I’ll always say yes. I’d love to participate again.”

Miles reviewed two applications and says he enjoyed seeing the type of research taking place in the heart center. “I was impressed with the quality of what I saw,” he says. “These were substantive, cutting-edge projects with application to everyday cardiology.”

Pauley Pilot Research Grant recipients

Pauley Pilot Research Grants Program recipients (l-r): Drs. Salvatore Carbone, Lei Xi, Mohammed Quader and Stefano Toldo

In November, the program awarded four grants for a total of $112,229:

• Integrated in vitro-in silico-in vivo modeling of engineered tissue vascular growth, development and function, by Stefano Toldo, Ph.D., and Joao Soares, Ph.D. (School of Engineering), $37,229
• Unsaturated fatty acids enriched-diet to improve metabolic flexibility and glucose tolerance in obese patients, by Salvatore Carbone, M.S., and Francesco Celi, M.D. (Division of Endocrinology), $25,000
• Nutraceutical therapy for alleviating cardiotoxicty of cancer chemotherapy, by Lei Xi, M.D., $25,000
• Optimal preservation condition for the donation after cardiac death heart (transplant), by Mohamed Quader, M.D., and Stefano Toldo, Ph.D., $25,000

“The four projects are diverse in nature, ranging from a partnership between tissue engineering and small animal surgery to enhance coronary artery bypass graft surgery, dietary modifications to enhance cardiorespiratory fitness, nutraceutical therapy to alleviate cardiotoxicity of chemotherapy and attempts to increase the pool of potential donor hearts for transplantation,” says Salloum, who served on the internal review committee.

The projects began Dec. 1. The grants will allow the investigators to pursue their ideas and possibly glean important data that will make future proposals more competitive for external research funding.

“Excellent ideas submitted to the NIH and other federal funding organizations fall short of funding if not substantiated with strong feasibility and preliminary data,” Salloum explains.

If you would like to inquire about making a donation to the Pauley Pilot Research Grants Program or serving as an external reviewer, please contact Carrie Mills, senior major gift officer, at cmills@vcuhealth.org or (804) 828-0423.

Annual fund donations to the Pauley Heart Center were critical to funding the new program. An additional $115,000 also has been donated to the program by several individuals.

“The generosity of our donors is greatly appreciated,” Salloum says. “Numerous meritorious grant proposals often go unfunded due to the lack of sufficient funds.”

In the future, “we hope to further grow this program. Our goal would be to make sure that every meritorious proposal from a Pauley researcher gets funded by a pilot grant.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of The Beat, a publication of VCU Health Pauley Heart Center.


Cardiology Chair Ken Ellenbogen honored for outstanding scholarship

Kenneth A. Ellenbogen, M.D.

Kenneth A. Ellenbogen, M.D.

The American College of Cardiology has recognized Kenneth Ellenbogen, M.D., for his contributions to its flagship journal.

Ellenbogen was honored with the 2018 Simon Dack Award for Outstanding Scholarship at the Journal of the American College of Cardiology editorial board meeting held in conjunction with the ACC’s 67th Annual Scientific Session March 10-12 in Orlando.

A leader in VCU’s Pauley Heart Center, Ellenbogen is chair of the Division of Cardiology and director of clinical cardiac electrophysiology and pacing on the MCV Campus. He holds the Martha M. and Harold W. Kimmerling, M.D. Chair in Cardiology.

The Journal of the American College of Cardiology ranks first among cardiovascular journals in the world for its scientific impact. The Simon Dack Award honors the JACC’s founding editor and recognizes the contributions and accomplishments of outstanding peer reviewers who assist the journal in its mission of publishing important new clinical information. Ellenbogen was honored with four fellow reviewers from University of California, Irvine; Hospital Universitario Clinico San Carlos in Madrid, Spain; Johns Hopkins Medicine; and Mayo Clinic.

“Improving patient care depends upon developing a better understanding of health and disease, and then applying those findings,” says Peter F. Buckley, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine. “Dr. Ellenbogen has a remarkable track record in doing that, and he’s known internationally for advancing the cardiology field through his research and teaching. I’m proud to see him recognized for his contributions.”

Ellenbogen’s academic, clinical and research efforts include developing new types of pacemakers and exploring the role of pacemakers in treating congestive heart failure and atrial fibrillation. He also is involved in developing more effective ways to perform ablation to treat atrial fibrillation.

The editor or co-editor of five textbooks of cardiac electrophysiology, he has served as principal investigator on more than 100 funded grants and contracts and has published more than 250 original scientific reports and more than 140 book chapters, editorials and review articles. Ellenbogen serves on the editorial boards of seven specialty journals including the JACC. A fellow of the ACC, he is co-editor for the ACC’s Electrophysiology Self-Assessment Program.

Ellenbogen has served as chair of the American Heart Association’s Committee on Electrocardiography and Arrhythmias as well as on the steering committee for two important National Institutes of Health trials, AFFIRM and MOST. Ellenbogen has been an invited lecturer and speaker all over the world and has given over 300 talks at major national meetings.

A member of the School of Medicine faculty since 1986, Ellenbogen earned his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University, where he also did his residency training in internal medicine. He received his cardiology fellowship training at Duke University Medical Center.

By Erin Lucero


John T. Povlishock honored at Brain Injury Association’s 35th anniversary benefit

John T. Povlishock, Ph.D.

John T. Povlishock, Ph.D.

The Brain Injury Association of Virginia, Virginia’s leading voice on brain injury, honored John T. Povlishock, Ph.D., as the 2018 BIAV Legacy Award winner. The Legacy Award recognizes significant, long-term contributions of lasting impact to the field of brain injury.

Povlishock is professor and chair of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology and director of the Commonwealth Center for the Study of Brain Injury in the VCU School of Medicine. He also serves as the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Neurotrauma.

Povlishock was recognized on March 2 during BIAV’s 35th anniversary celebration and awards event. The event was attended by Gov. Ralph Northam, legislators, policymakers, caregivers and members of the brain injury community from across the state.

“We are so proud to see Dr. Povlishock honored in this way,” says Peter F. Buckley, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine. “He has a national and international reputation.”

BIAV’s 2018 honorees were selected for their innovative and outstanding contributions to the brain injury field.

“We are absolutely delighted to recognize these individuals for their exceptional and inspiring work on behalf of individuals with brain injuries and their families and caregivers and for their extraordinary contributions to the brain injury community,” Brain Injury Association of Virginia Executive Director Anne McDonnell says. “Researchers such as Dr. Povlishock are often the unrecognized heroes of trauma care. His groundbreaking research has changed the field of brain injury as we know it and it is our great honor to present Dr. Povlishock with BIAV’s inaugural Legacy Award.”

The celebration’s other honorees are Legislator of the Year, Senator John Edwards, 21st District, and the Weinstock Awardee Greg O’Shanick, M.D., president and medical director of the Center for Neurorehabilitation Services.

The mission of BIAV is to advance education, awareness, support, treatment and research to improve the quality of life for all people affected by brain injury.


Pharmacology and Toxicology’s Robert Balster to receive ASPET’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Robert L. Balster, Ph.D.

Robert L. Balster, Ph.D.

Robert L. Balster, Ph.D., is the recipient of the 2018 P.B. Dews Lifetime Achievement Award for Research in Behavioral Pharmacology given by the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. Balster, the Luther A. Butler Professor in Drug and Alcohol Studies in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, is being recognized for his outstanding lifetime achievements in research, teaching and professional service in the field of behavioral pharmacology.

The ASPET Division for Behavioral Pharmacology sponsors the P.B. Dews Award to honor Peter Dews, Ph.D., for his seminal contributions to the development of behavioral pharmacology as a discipline.

“Congratulations to Dr. Balster on this deserved honor,” says Peter F. Buckley, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine. “This award reinforces his work as an internationally recognized scientist in substance abuse who displays an unwavering commitment to fighting disease, improving health for all.”

Katherine Nicholson, D.V.M., Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, nominated Balster and notes that in addition to his scientific achievements, “Bob is known for his ability to form teams, to inspire others to work together and to develop new programs while being an accessible and amiable colleague. He is one of the most collegial and positive individuals I have known.”

Balster has greatly advanced the field of substance abuse research. He was a leader in the development of laboratory models for studying the abuse-related properties of drugs. He applied these models of research in many areas of addiction, with greatest emphasis on the phencyclidine-type (PCP) drugs and abused inhalants. His work has contributed to the development of medications with reduced potential for abuse. More recently, he has focused on research dissemination, serving for 12 years as editor-in-chief of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, and in the development of training programs for addiction scientists and practitioners. He received the VCU Presidential Medallion in 2014.

Balster, also a research professor of psychology and psychiatry in the College of Humanities and Sciences, received his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Houston in 1970. In 1973, he joined VCU faculty. Balster is the co-founder and co-director of the International Programme in Addiction Studies and associate coordinator of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program in Substance Abuse Prevention, Treatment and Policy. He also co-founded the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products at VCU.

ASPET will present Balster with the P.B. Dews Lifetime Achievement Award for Research in Behavioral Pharmacology during the ASPET Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology 2018 in San Diego in April.


‘It was like life was on standby:’ VCU team returns from Puerto Rico

M2 Gabriel Martinez Alvarez walks the streets in Tao Baja during a weeklong trip to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

M2 Gabriel Martinez Alvarez walks the streets in Tao Baja during a weeklong trip to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico. “I was surprised by how evident the aftermath of the hurricane still is and how much recovery there still is to do.”

An interdisciplinary team learned a great deal while providing care to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico last month. Perhaps two of the greatest lessons: even months after the September storm caused a humanitarian crisis, the situation on the island is still changing rapidly and health needs – especially mental health needs – will continue for a long time.

The VCU team included Mark Ryan, M’00, H’03, associate professor of family medicine and medical director, I²CRP program; Emily Peron, Pharm.D., M.S., assistant professor in the School of Pharmacy; School of Medicine students Gabriel Martinez Alvarez and Frank Soto del Valle; School of Pharmacy student Camilla De Jesus Pinero; and clinical psychologist, Carla Shaffer, Ph.D., L.C.P.

The plan was to spend the week of Dec. 16 at the Clinica Bantiox in Tao Baja, just west of San Juan. Ryan had visited the clinic in October and established a relationship with its organizers. But when the VCU team arrived, the patient load was significantly lighter, so the team partnered with Clinica Bantiox to expand the clinic’s reach into nearby barrios and mountain communities in the island’s center.

VCU students and faculty also worked with another clinic in Quebradillas on the western side of Puerto Rico. There, they managed acute and chronic care needs while listening to residents who needed to share stories and emotions.

Through their interactions with the community, they heard chilling stories about the devastation and its long-term effects.

“Absolutely everyone on the island was affected by the hurricane,” says the Class of 2020’s Martinez Alvarez. “I was surprised by how evident the aftermath of the hurricane still is and how much recovery there still is to do.” Months after the hurricane, he notes, electrical poles are down, debris is piled up and tarps cover many of the roofs. Many residents in the areas visited still don’t have potable water and must fill containers from streams.

An interdisciplinary team including medical school faculty and students travels to Puerto Rico with donated supplies.

An interdisciplinary team including medical school faculty and students travels to Puerto Rico with donated supplies, ready to manage acute and chronic care needs for the country’s residents.

Though Puerto Ricans’ most urgent medical needs may have been addressed for now, a slow-moving crisis still exists, Ryan says. “The emotional and psychological trauma is still a huge problem. We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

Clinical psychologist Shaffer agrees. “It was eye-opening to see firsthand that recovering from this storm wasn’t just a matter of recouping the tangible, it was also about rebuilding a sense of safety and normalcy.

“It really seemed life was on hold and they were finding a way for life to start moving again. I heard several people describe ‘it was like life was on standby’ and this sentiment still rang true even for those who felt the storm had spared them.”

Some residents, Shaffer adds, found the months after the storm as worse than the storm itself. “It’s the aftermath that feels harder to survive, harder still for those who had very little to begin with and continue to struggle without basic resources like electricity or water.”

With the images of the island’s devastation still fresh, Ryan hopes to work with contacts in Puerto Rico and at VCU to see if an ongoing relationship can be developed to support the Puerto Rican community and give VCU faculty and students an opportunity to gain practical experience. One possibility could be partnering with a clinic in Quebradillas. Organizers hope the facility will become a fully functional hospital in a few years.

“It felt great to be able to contribute in a small way to the long and hard rebuild that Puerto Rico is going through,” Martinez Alvarez says, adding that the experience honed skills that will be valuable in his future as a physician. “It reinforced the importance of listening and taking into account situations and environments when treating patients’ conditions.”

By Lisa Crutchfield


Alumna and faculty member Betsy Ripley named fellow in Executive Leadership Program for Women in Academic Medicine

Betsy Ripley, M'86, H'92, interim senior associate dean for faculty affairs in the medical school, has been named a 2017-18 fellow in the Executive Leadership Program for Women in Academic Medicine.

Betsy Ripley, M’86, H’92, interim senior associate dean for faculty affairs in the medical school, has been named a 2017-18 fellow in the Executive Leadership Program for Women in Academic Medicine.

The keys to becoming a successful leader, says Betsy Ripley, M’86, H’92, MS’04 (BIOS), begin with being open to the opportunities that come your way while taking time to do your current job well.

“By being a leader and doing your job well on a daily basis, you’re not just shooting for the next job. You’re contributing along the way,” Ripley says. “Be active and participate. People will remember that and you’ll be asked to do the next thing. It all builds on itself.”

Saying “yes” has led Ripley down a path to her current role as interim senior associate dean for faculty affairs for the VCU School of Medicine and, more recently, as a 2017-18 fellow with the prestigious Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine. ELAM is a year-long part-time fellowship for women faculty in schools of medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and public health.

A core program of the Institute for Women’s Health and Leadership at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, ELAM is dedicated to developing the professional and personal skills required to lead and manage in today’s complex health environment, with special attention to the unique challenges facing women in leadership positions.

“Applicants have to be incredibly accomplished to earn their position and Dr. Ripley was accepted the first time she applied,” says Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D., who also serves as Ripley’s ELAM sponsor. “This national recognition comes as no surprise to those of us who see Betsy’s outstanding work with faculty on a daily basis. I couldn’t be more proud to see her represent our medical school as part of ELAM.”

More than 1,000 ELAM alumnae hold leadership positions in institutions around the world. The VCU School of Medicine has sponsored 12 previous ELAM fellows.

“At VCU, we have a lot of good strong women leaders — Marsha Rappley, Deborah Davis, Deborah Zimmermann, Melinda Hancock, to name a few,” Ripley says. “Phenomenal women who speak to how open VCU is to developing and growing our women.”

As part of ELAM, fellows participate in three week-long on-site training sessions in September, January and April, in addition to working on assignments and reading throughout the year, participating in the leadership online curriculum and communicating regularly with ELAM colleagues.

Each fellow works on an Institutional Action Project that aligns with her experiences and meets an organizational goal or need at her home university. Ripley chose a cause near and dear to her heart: education and training for faculty members.

“In medical school, we don’t go to class to become a faculty member,” she says. “You come up through the ranks and — poof! — you’re a faculty member.”

In an effort to ensure that faculty development opportunities at the medical school better meet faculty’s needs, Ripley is cataloging each development opportunity offered through the school, assigning it to a particular competency (general knowledge, leadership, scholarship or teaching and service) and determining where more resources are needed.

“We offer a lot of development opportunities but what do our faculty truly need to grow and become successful?” Ripley asks. “Along the way, what they need to know may change. What resources are needed for that growth?”

Ripley will present her project at ELAM’s on-site meeting in April not only to this year’s 54-member ELAM class, but to a host of deans, including Buckley, who will attend the final session. Networking and mentoring opportunities among national leaders is a key component of ELAM’s ultimate goal to expand the national pool of qualified women candidates for leadership in academic medicine, dentistry and public health.

She attributes her leadership success to a multitude of mentors at the medical school: Domenic Sica, M.D., Berry Fowler, M.D., John Nestler, M.D., and Dick Wenzel, M.D., all in the Department of Internal Medicine, as well as retired senior associate dean of faculty affairs P.J. Coney, M.D., and, now, Dean of Medicine Buckley.

“I’m blessed to be at an institution that’s recognized the leadership skills within me,” says Ripley, who earned her medical degree at VCU and remained on the MCV Campus to complete residency training. “I’m lucky many people have helped me when I needed it and encouraged me along the way.”

Ripley remembers a “say yes” moment when early in her career, she applied for a National Institutes of Health K Award at the encouragement of Wenzel and Fowler. She received the award and it led her to sit on a panel of VCU’s Institutional Review Board, of which she later became senior chair. It sparked an interest in research ethics that led to a master’s degree from the Department of Biostatistics, an AMA ethics fellowship, and the role as clinical research compliance officer for the university.

Ultimately, her clinical and research experience, combined with her dual role as a mother to three sons, led her to faculty affairs, first in the Department of Internal Medicine and later in the School of Medicine.

“I can speak to the variety of challenges faculty members might face, both in the workplace and at home,” Ripley says.

Sometimes, it only takes that one voice telling — and showing — others it’s possible that can make all the difference. It was in her medical school interview on the MCV Campus with a female faculty member when Ripley heard the words that molded how she approached medicine, a career and family.

“She said ‘you can do it all — if you want to,'” Ripley says. “I had that one woman who told me I could.”

Now she serves as that one voice of encouragement for faculty members across the School of Medicine, taking her place as a role model and mentor for countless others.

By Polly Roberts

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Updated: 04/29/2016