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05
2018

Passion pays off: Sanyal to receive premier award in field of liver disease

The American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases will honor Arun Sanyal, M.D., with the 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award.

The American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases will honor Arun Sanyal, M.D., who holds the Z. Reno Vlahcevic Research Professorship in Gastroenterology Research, with the 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award, recognized as the premier award in the field of liver disease.

In November 2018, Arun Sanyal, M.D., will accept the 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award from the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases. The award signifies 30 years of research including 17 continuous years of National Institutes of Health funding, the development of therapeutics reducing liver disease across the globe, and countless international leadership roles and awards.

“This is the premier award in the field of liver disease and Dr. Sanyal is most deserving,” says Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D. “His work is the definition of translational medicine. Through his extraordinary commitment to research, teaching and patient care, and to always finding a better way, he has improved the standard of care for liver disease around the world.”

A housestaff alumnus who’s now a professor in the VCU Department of Internal Medicine and education core director in the VCU Center for Clinical and Translational Research, Sanyal embodies a passion for liver disease that has taken him to the top of his field. It’s a much different place than he envisioned in 1987, when he came to the MCV Campus as a gastroenterology fellow.

“I had no interest in liver disease and I was actually terrified by it because all the patients were dying when I was in training,” Sanyal says.

Then-chair of VCU’s Division of Gastroenterology Z. Reno Vlahcevic, M.D., who had recruited Sanyal, wasted no time in calling the young trainee into his office. “He knew it troubled me tremendously that what was being taught as the best care possible still resulted in the majority of people dying,” Sanyal says. “I thought that was completely unacceptable. He believed that would prove a strong motivator, so he told me, ‘I think you should do liver disease.’

“And off I went.”

Finding a better way
Today, Sanyal holds the Z. Reno Vlahcevic Research Professorship in Gastroenterology Research that honors his mentor who died in 2000. “At a personal level, it’s extremely poignant and meaningful. I hope I can do him proud.”

Practically, the professorship gives Sanyal the freedom to get early-stage, unfunded projects off the ground with the goal of doing what Vlahcevic knew he wanted — and needed — to do: find a better way to treat liver disease.

“We have developed new paradigms for drug development that are now being used across all the field of liver disease. None of that would have been possible without having an endowed professorship that protects your time for that kind of research,” Sanyal says. “It allows more time for educating young physicians and for developing new ideas and concepts that have a footprint beyond the university to a national and even international level.”

Sanyal has had a hand in three high-profile advances that have improved liver disease treatment since his training days. First, along with a former radiology colleague, he helped establish the foundation for a procedure known as TIPS that places a stent in the abdomen and has helped lower the mortality rate associated with internal bleeding in cirrhosis patients from 30 percent to 15 percent.

Second, he discovered a link between nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance that translated to new treatment and practice guidelines. Finally, Sanyal is in the midst of a study to reverse kidney shutdown in cirrhosis patients that could reduce mortality for this otherwise fatal condition without liver transplantation.

Over the next five years, Sanyal will lead a $14 million national project to find an alternative to using biopsies to test for fatty liver disease. Today, many patients will refuse the invasive procedure, allowing an undiagnosed disease to fester until the only remaining treatment option is a liver transplant.

“By developing simple, non-invasive tools that every physician can use at the bedside, we hope that we will be able to expand access to care for the millions of people who have this condition so we can identify those who need more aggressive attention,” Sanyal says.

“A living textbook”
Sanyal credits his family, teachers, colleagues and patients who have helped him advance the liver disease field.

“Patients are my best teachers,” Sanyal says. “You don’t need a podcast. Every time I walk into a clinic, I’m reading a living textbook.”

It’s a textbook he says he continues to learn from every day.

“The work,” he says, “is never finished.”

By Polly Roberts

07
2018

The Class of 88’s Greg Hundley joins Pauley Heart Center as inaugural director

Greg Hundley, M'88 (left), Pauley Heart Center inaugural director, with former cardiology chair George Vetrovec, M.D., H'74, F'76 (center), and current cardiology chair Kenneth Ellenbogen, M.D.

Greg Hundley, M’88 (left), Pauley Heart Center inaugural director, with former cardiology chair George Vetrovec, M.D., H’74, F’76 (center), and current cardiology chair Kenneth Ellenbogen, M.D.

In the early 1980s, a bright-eyed William & Mary undergraduate took the bus from Williamsburg, Va., to Richmond on a whim. He was thinking of becoming a doctor and wanted to get a feel for the MCV Campus. He wandered the floors of Sanger Hall and happened upon the office of then-cardiology professor Hermes A. Kontos, M.D., H’62, PhD’67 (PHIS).

“Hi, I’m Greg Hundley.”

He explained his interest in medicine and asked if he could work for Kontos that summer. Kontos, as he had done for many students before, said he had a perfect project for the aspiring physician.

It marked the start of a years-long mentorship that continued during Hundley’s undergraduate and medical school years as he worked in the lab with Kontos, who would go on to become dean of the medical school and later vice president for health sciences and CEO of VCU Health System.

“It was a blessing because when I started medical school, other students were trying to get into a lab and I was thrilled to already be working with one of the most famous people here,” laughs Hundley, M’88. “It was just happenstance.”

What wasn’t happenstance was his return to his alma mater in July 2018 as the inaugural director of the VCU Pauley Heart Center. Now a longtime leader in the field of cardiovascular imaging, Hundley was the first in the world to use magnetic resonance imaging to demonstrate that MRI stress testing can identify those at risk of heart attack. He’s also recognized for studying the impact of chemotherapy and radiation therapy on heart health, advancing treatment options for patients in need of cardiovascular and oncology care.

“He is going to do wonderful things for the Pauley Heart Center,” says former cardiology chair George Vetrovec, M.D., H’74, F’76. “Having his specialized and internationally recognized expertise related to cardiology imaging will significantly improve our research opportunities and recruitment of trainees. It really moves the Pauley Heart Center forward and is going to have an impact for Massey Cancer Center as well. It’s a win-win.”

The two men have known each other for years – “In fact, I tried to recruit him here a couple of times,” Vetrovec says — and share a common mentor in Kontos. Hundley’s appointment became even sweeter when he was named the first holder of the George Vetrovec Chair in September.

“It’s very special to have the chair and then for the first scholar to be a leader like Dr. Hundley, who I know and respect,” Vetrovec says. “There couldn’t be a better match.”

The significance isn’t lost on Hundley, who cites the work of professor emeritus David Richardson, M.D., H’55, as well as Kontos and Vetrovec, as a legacy he will work hard to further in his new role. “Those men are giants in their own right in the field of cardiovascular medicine.”

Hundley’s arrival marks the opening of a new Cardiovascular Imaging Suite made possible by an investment from the Pauley Family Foundation. The cornerstone of the suite is a Magnetom Vida 3 Tesla (3T) MRI system that increases accuracy of diagnosis, reduces image distortion and enhances opportunities to develop personalized treatment plans.

Hundley compares it to high-definition television. “You can appreciate anatomy, where everything is, what the structure is, what the function is. When those processes are broken we can understand the exact cause of the heart not working properly, producing two great outcomes. First, doctors get to clearly see what the problem is, and second, patients also have that clear understanding so both can work together to come up with a solution to prevent cardiovascular complication.”

The 3T MRI takes nine seconds to produce 15, high-def images. It’s a long way from the days when Hundley would wait nine minutes for one image and then stay up all night to code its results.

Exploring the ways patients can benefit from high-def imaging is what inspires Hundley’s research. In the past 20 years, he’s participated in research funded by more than $71 million in National Institutes of Health grants.

As he brings his next-level technology expertise and research to the MCV Campus, Hundley also hopes to hold on to the values instilled in him by mentors like Kontos.

“He really encouraged me to shoot and aim high,” Hundley says. “I want to do for everybody else what he and others who came before have done for me.”

Vetrovec has no doubt Hundley will rise to the challenge.

“I’m sure he’ll do it and then some.”

By Polly Roberts

07
2018

Urology professor’s volunteer trips to Vietnam help patients at home and abroad

This story first appeared in Impact, VCU’s award-winning publication that shows how philanthropy changes the lives of students and faculty on campus.

This story first appeared in Impact, VCU’s award-winning publication that shows how philanthropy changes the lives of students and faculty on campus.

VCU School of Medicine Urology Chair Lance Hampton, M.D., has traveled to Vietnam almost every year since 2009 as a volunteer mentor for IVUmed’s Traveling Resident Scholarship Program. The program pairs a mentor with a urology resident from the U.S. and sends them to a host country, where they provide training in the advanced techniques they use at home and experience surgery in a developing country with minimal resources.

At VCU, Hampton is the holder of the Barbara and William B. Thalhimer, Jr. Professorship in Urology, which was established in 1989 to attract and retain eminent urology scholars. The professorship supports all of Hampton’s efforts to advance VCU’s urology program, including his work with the Vietnam volunteer program. “These trips have enhanced my surgical practice in many ways,” Hampton says, “and have helped me to educate future urologists and help the patients of central Virginia as well.”

This is Hampton’s personal account of his trips over the years.

Like most Americans, the only things I knew about Vietnam were the stories that I had heard about the Vietnam War. As a child of the ’70s, I grew up in a time where everyone, from my parents to the media, was trying to put the war behind them. Little did I know then that many years later, I would be traveling regularly to the heart of the Tet Offensive in Hue, Vietnam.

When I arrived at VCU Medical Center from Southern California in 2008, I found out about a longtime urology volunteer program based out of the University of Utah, International Volunteers in Urology (soon to become IVUmed). IVUmed is a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching urology in developing countries, and the program offered the chance for a “resident mentor” trip to Hue, Vietnam. I was interested in international volunteering, so I immediately applied and was accepted. One of my residents, Cameron Wilson, M’07, H’12, also applied and accompanied me to Hue in October 2009.

Hue is known as the imperial capital of Vietnam. It was home to the Nguyen emperors for hundreds of years. In the middle of the current modern city is the Citadel, an ancient, walled city. The Perfume River splits the city and runs just south of the Citadel. Nationwide, the Vietnamese recognize the Perfume River as the “most beautiful river in all of Vietnam.”

The city is also home to Hue University School of Medicine and Pharmacy, which is the third-largest medical school in Vietnam and graduates more than 1,000 physicians every year, who practice throughout the country. The medical school is our base during our time there. Our days are filled with a continuous rotating schedule of operating, teaching, lecturing and, of course, eating and drinking with our extraordinarily friendly Vietnamese hosts.

The VCU trips to Hue have been extremely beneficial to both institutions. “A good mechanic never blames his tools” is a common expression in surgery, and these trips have taught me that a master surgeon provides excellent care, regardless of the available tools. Surgically, the Vietnamese urologists are masters of their craft, but they are working with severely limited resources. Laparoscopy, which has been a standard feature of American operating rooms for 30 years, has only recently been possible in Vietnam. At VCU, we have been performing robot-assisted surgery for the past decade. Virtually all major hospitals in the U.S. have at least one surgical robot (and most have multiple robots). Vietnam has two robots in the entire country, servicing a population of 92 million people.

We have expanded the services provided at Hue University to include urologic cancer care, advanced laparoscopy, pediatric urology, reconstructive surgery, percutaneous stone surgery and even advanced plastic surgery techniques with our colleagues in the VCU Division of Plastic Surgery.

Returning to the U.S. after these trips, I have incorporated many Vietnamese surgical techniques into my practice, and they have been used to help patients in central Virginia. Just a few weeks after returning from our inaugural trip, I met a patient with an extremely large renal stone that I removed in a single operation using an “old-fashioned” open technique I had learned in Hue. In the U.S., this type of operation is typically performed using minimally invasive techniques that can involve multiple procedures, last several hours and leave the patient with multiple stone fragments.

For the seven VCU urology residents who have participated over the years, this has been an opportunity of a lifetime. A global perspective of education and surgical care enables these future urologists to appreciate what they have and to practice an altruistic approach to global health care. After graduating from VCU urology, many residents have continued to be involved in international surgical volunteering.

Personally, I have also found it rewarding to have the opportunity to work with urology residents from other institutions including Duke; the University of Miami; the University of California, San Francisco; and Ohio State, as well as urologists from Boston, San Francisco and Texas.

Thanks to the Thalhimer Professorship held at the MCV Foundation, along with the VCU Department of Surgery and the Division of Urology, these trips have been met with tremendous support, including financial. Through the medical school’s dean’s office and the VCU Global Education Office, we now have a formal collaboration agreement between the VCU School of Medicine and Hue University School of Medicine and Pharmacy to provide teaching and continued interaction.

As surgeons and educators in the most prosperous country in the world, we have a debt to the rest of the world. It’s not enough to sit back and enjoy the many benefits and luxuries that we are lucky to have. We are obliged to give back and leave this world better than we found it. For me, this means improving surgical care and the education of residents, medical students and patients in central Vietnam as well as in central Virginia.

By Lance Hampton, M.D.

25
2018

M.D.-Ph.D. student Audra Iness named president of American Physician Scientists Association

M.D.-Ph.D. student Audra Iness is the 2018-19 president of the American Physician Scientists Association.

M.D.-Ph.D. student Audra Iness is the 2018-19 president of the American Physician Scientists Association.

“When did you know you wanted to be a doctor?”

It’s a question that begins in medical school admissions interviews and lasts throughout a physician’s career. Many can point to an influential moment — whether it’s a family member’s illness, an encouraging mentor or a desire to give back.

Audra Iness is no exception. At 15, she sat by her older brother’s bedside as he battled chronic pancreatitis, a diagnosis that kept him in and out of the hospital for the better part of a year. It wasn’t until his surgeons collaborated with researchers on a special surgery that he found relief.

And his sister found her calling — not only as a physician, but as a physician-scientist.

“I saw the interaction between the physicians and surgeons and the research lab,” Iness says. “Seeing it all come together was amazing. It transformed his life and our family’s life. That’s why I’m not only interested in the clinical side but also the research. I want to transform medicine as a whole.”

The VCU School of Medicine M.D.-Ph.D. student has already started, serving as a national leader among the next generation of physician-scientists. In July 2018, Iness began a one-year term as president of the American Physician Scientists Association, an organization led by trainees, for trainees. APSA strives to be the student physician-scientists’ leading voice for improving educational opportunities, advancing patient-oriented research and advocating for the future of translational medicine.

“Audra is a remarkable individual who deeply cares about the future of clinical research in the U.S. and does everything she can to advance the pipeline of physician-scientists,” says Michael Donnenberg, M.D., senior associate dean for research and research training.

As APSA president, Iness promotes key initiatives including mentorship and establishing an international consortium of physician-scientist trainee organizations. She recently returned from a conference in Canada and regularly speaks with M.D.-Ph.D. students across the globe about the challenges they face and ways to learn from one another.

Strong peer relationships are especially critical for M.D.-Ph.D. students who spend an average of eight years earning their dual-degree. At VCU, their medical education begins with two years of preclinical, followed by three to five years of graduate studies, and then back to the M.D. program for two clinical years.

“The training path is long and challenging so it’s helpful to have the peer support as students and later as peers in our professional lives,” says Iness, who is in the final semester of the graduate phase of the program. “Starting to establish those relationships now is extremely valuable.”

In December 2018, Audra Iness will earn her Ph.D. in cancer and molecular medicine. Then she'll begin clinical rotations and complete her remaining two years of medical school.

In December 2018, Audra Iness will earn her Ph.D. in cancer and molecular medicine. Then she’ll begin clinical rotations and complete her remaining two years of medical school.

Iness joined the national APSA chapter when she entered medical school in 2013 and later resurrected VCU’s APSA chapter. She also founded Advocates for M.D.-Ph.D. Women at VCU to address the underrepresentation of women in the field.

“While the gap has closed for women in medical school — more females enrolled in medical schools in 2017 than males — that’s not the case for physician-scientists, where only about 30 to 40 percent of trainees are female,” Iness says. “We want to find out why and support the women who are here.”

Support throughout the VCU community is what brought Iness to the MCV Campus from her home state of California. “Accessibility to my advisor is huge,” Iness says. “I know who to go to and they’re happy to talk to me. The faculty here has made such a difference and encouraged me to be in national leadership positions.”

She’s also grateful for the M.D.-Ph.D. program’s financial support that covers her tuition costs and provides a stipend. In 2015, a $16 million gift from longtime benefactor C. Kenneth Wright named the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research at VCU and provided $4 million to fund the physician-scientist scholars program.

“We fully fund all our M.D.-Ph.D. students — many schools can’t claim that,” Donnenberg says. “It’s important to make that commitment to our students. This wonderful gift from Ken Wright allows us to attract even more students who share an equal passion for patient care and for science and research.”

In December, Iness will earn her Ph.D. in cancer and molecular medicine. She’s spent the last four years working in the lab of Larisa Litovchick, M.D., Ph.D. Her thesis project is focused on B-Myb, a recognized oncoprotein known for its role in cell cycle gene regulation.

High B-Myb levels are associated with a poor prognosis in many cancers, yet its role in ovarian cancer is not well understood. Iness’ research, funded by a National Institutes of Health grant, could help identify predictive markers and therapeutic targets for treatment of ovarian cancer.

Now she’s eager to apply what she’s learned in the lab when she returns to the medical school and begins clinical rotations in January.

“That’s what excites me the most — to see everything fall into place,” Iness says. “I’ve had a vision of working at the border between science and medicine, and seeing through patients what needs to be addressed in the research lab. Now I can take what I’ve learned in the lab and apply it in the clinic and see what happens. That back-and-forth is really the power of dual-degree training.”

By Polly Roberts

02
2018

Make It Real Campaign for VCU surpasses $600 million … and School of Medicine leads the way

Virginia Commonwealth University has raised $613.5 million toward its $750 million goal in the Make It Real Campaign for VCU, the university announced June 1.

Fiscal year 2018 marks the best fundraising year of the campaign so far, with $105.6 million raised to date. The university’s fiscal year ended June 30.

“I could not be more grateful for the generous support of our alumni and friends who helped us reach this milestone,” says Dean of Medicine Peter F. Buckley, M.D. “They are leading the way in defining the future of medicine on the MCV Campus. Gifts to the School of Medicine are vital to sustaining our core values of cultivating a life-changing learning experience for students and trainees, exceptional care for the sick, and a curiosity for medical research and discovery.”

The campaign, which began with a quiet phase in July 2012 and launched publicly in September 2016, is the largest fundraising effort in the university’s history. It counts all funds raised through June 30, 2020.

“The School of Medicine has hit our fundraising goal for this fiscal year — putting us at nearly 75 percent of the school’s $300 million campaign goal and paving the way for a strong finish in 2020,” says Thomas Maness, M.P.A., associate dean for development and alumni affairs in the medical school. “It simply wouldn’t be possible without the dedicated alumni and friends who are committed to advancing the school they hold dear.”

The 1838 Campaign is the cornerstone of the medical school’s fundraising efforts that aims to build the school’s scholarship endowment into a resource on par with its peer schools. An expanded endowment will provide a competitive edge for recruiting top students, rewarding student excellence and reducing the burden of debt that is too often an inescapable part of choosing a career in medicine.

Thanks to the support of alumni and friends, 21 new medical student scholarships already have been established during the 1838 Campaign. An additional nine will be awarded this fall, and 16 more are currently in the works. Another 46 existing scholarship funds have increased in size with the addition of new gifts.

“My scholarship alleviates some of the financial burden, but most importantly, it allows me to continue to follow my dream, choosing my career specialty based on the relationships I can create and the difference I can make, rather than based off the student debt I will accrue,” says the Class of 2019’s Jessica Mace, 1838 Fund scholarship recipient.

Of the $105.6 million the university raised this fiscal year, $38.9 million came from alumni — including 1,789 first-time alumni donors — an increase of 80.4 percent in the committed revenue raised during the same time last year.

“The legacy of these alumni extends beyond their careers and patients,” Maness says, “and empowers the next generation of physicians who will embody the values and traditions of the MCV Campus.”

02
2018

Biostatistics alumna turns award into chance to honor mentor

Stacey S. Cofield, PhD'03 (BIOS), used her own teaching award to establish a scholarship to honor her mentor

Stacey S. Cofield, PhD’03 (BIOS), used her own teaching award to establish a scholarship to honor her mentor, associate professor Al M. Best, PhD’84 (BIOS).

“Stop. Think. Tell the story.”

Stacey S. Cofield, PhD’03 (BIOS), proudly displays these words in her office at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. An associate professor in the Department of Biostatistics, she draws inspiration every day from the advice given her by her mentor, Al M. Best, PhD’84 (BIOS), more than 15 years ago.

“He was very clear in his approach in the classroom,” Cofield says. “He always believed in telling the story – in showing students why the data matters in the real world.”

Her students approve. Cofield was awarded the 2018 UAB President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching for the School of Public Health at UAB in April. The award recognizes faculty members who have demonstrated exceptional accomplishments in teaching.

“One of the reasons that I have this honor is because of Dr. Best,” Cofield says. “He taught me so much. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.”

To honor the influence he had on her life, Cofield is using her teaching award as an opportunity to establish a scholarship in Best’s name. The Dr. Al M. Best Biostatistics Teaching Award will support a biostatistics student interested in teaching. The annual award will provide about $1,500 toward books, tuition and travel for conferences. Some of those funds were raised when Cofield auctioned off the parking spot she won as part of the President’s award.

“On the face of it, it’s astonishing that a biostatistics professor would receive a teaching award because of the reputation biostatistics has as dry and boring,” says Best, VCU’s director of Faculty Research Development in the School of Dentistry and affiliate professor in the medical school’s Department of Biostatistics. “That Stacey would pull this off, however, is not. She connects with students in real ways.”

Cofield, who grew up in Minnesota, graduated from Washington and Lee in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences and mathematics. She enrolled in VCU’s certificate program in statistics, then moved into the master’s program. Before she completed it, she went all in by transferring into the doctorate program in biostatistics.

Associate professor Al M. Best, PhD'84 (BIOS)

Associate professor Al M. Best, PhD’84 (BIOS)

“I liked him immediately,” she says. “Instead of just teaching statistics, which can be very unexciting, he applied it to everyday life. We were in the classroom solving problems.”

She served as Best’s teaching assistant for three years and watched in amazement as he helped shape students.

“I remember watching these students go from resenting the fact that they had to be there to engaging in the problem at hand,” Cofield says. “It changed my trajectory.”

Instead of pursuing a career as a research biostatistician in sports medicine as she had planned, she joined the UAB faculty. She also has been involved in numerous research projects, focusing on combination therapies for multiple sclerosis and clinical trials for rheumatoid arthritis. She is currently involved in a study examining whether people taking certain medications are more prone to developing shingles after receiving the shingles vaccine.

“I absolutely love what I do,” Cofield says. “Whether it’s working in research or with my students, I enjoy helping people define what it is they need to know and using biostatistics to help them reach their goals.”

By Janet Showalter

Virginia Commonwealth University
VCU Medical Center
School of Medicine
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Updated: 04/29/2016