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School of Medicine profiles

June 2009 Archives

June 18, 2009

Kyle Eliason

Kyle Eliason says he learned what medicine was all about before he even arrived on campus. It was Dec. 1, 2004, when he underwent a living donor liver transplant, donating 55 percent of his liver to his brother and best friend, Eric. Eliason’s four-year Aesculapian Scholarship was made possible by the medical school’s annual fund and now he’s headed to the University of Iowa’s internal medicine residency program.

Jemilat Badamas

Growing up in Ibadan, Nigeria, Jemilat Badamas, always knew she was bound to study in America. At age 18, she moved to the U.S. to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor, first as an undergraduate in Baltimore and then at the VCU School of Medicine.

Her four years have been distinguished by her course work – in her third year she was inducted into Alpha Omega Alpha, the national medical honor society – as well as by her commitment to the community. Volunteering at Richmond homeless and remote-area clinics and mentoring high school students interested in medical careers are just some of the things she has made time to do.

Jamal Zweit, Ph.D., D.Sc.

Professor of radiology
Director of the Center for Molecular Imaging
Most recent post: University of Manchester

Jamal Zweit, Ph.D., D.Sc., came to campus last July to continue his work that combines different imaging techniques to give a more comprehensive picture of what’s happening in the body. With expertise in positron emission tomography and biomarker developments, Zweit’s specialty is called multimodality molecular imaging. He also develops novel markers – everything from labeled drugs to radioquantum dots, the nanoscale probes that combine fluorescence and PET-imaging signals to selectively target molecules of interest.

Zweit applies this arsenal of skills to problems of cancer, from the biological pathways involved to how the disease progresses or gets interrupted with therapy. His group was the first to use molecular imaging to examine treatments that block the growth of blood vessels in tumors. With PET, they watched a biologic drug penetrate targeted tissue and then used MRI to track the effects of the drug on blood flow.

Zweit studied radiation biophysics and biochemistry as an undergraduate at the University of Kansas and nuclear medicine and molecular imaging in his graduate studies at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. After postdoctoral fellowships, he established a radiopharmaceutical research group at the Institute for Cancer Research in London before being recruited back to Manchester as an assistant professor to set up the Manchester PET Research Center.

Recruited by several universities in North America, Zweit chose VCU. “I saw a very good research environment here,” he says.

He’ll use the opportunity to build an internationally renowned molecular imaging center – “something that will compete with the big boys, if you like,” he says. “This is a very multidisciplinary and complex field of research that requires people from different specialties.”

Zweit is already taking advantage of the Massey Cancer Center, the larger medical center and the “excellent basic science departments” to build a critical mass of expertise.

By Jill U. Adams, for the Dean’s Discovery Report

Norbert Voelkel, M.D.

Voelkel-Norbert2-2009-by-Schindler.jpgThe new Molecular Medicine Research Building is like a blank slate to medicine professor Norbert Voelkel, M.D., who was recruited to boost pulmonary research on VCU’s MCV Campus. With a trusty piece of chalk and a career’s worth of experience in translational research, Voelkel is sketching out the components of a new collaborative research group to study the interactions between the heart and the lung. The lung, Voelkel explains, is regulated independently of the general circulation. That results in a specific set of challenges, leading him to ask, “How does the sick lung affect the heart? How does the sick heart affect the lung?”

One disease of the heart-lung interface is pulmonary hypertension. The heart pumps blood through the lung to oxygenate it before sending it out to the rest of the body. When blood pressure is high in the lung circulation, the right ventricle of the heart – the chamber that’s doing the work – is overtaxed and can fail.

“If it’s severe, then the disease is deadly,” says Voelkel. “A big part of my laboratory work is to understand the mechanisms of pulmonary hypertension and how we can soften the blow for the right ventricle.”

Voelkel has preclinical evidence that a drug widely used in heart failure might also protect the right side of the heart in pulmonary hypertension. He is in the process of designing clinical studies to test his theory in patients.

Another area of interest is emphysema, a progressive disease in which damage to the tiny air sacs of the lung contribute to shortness of breath. Emphysema is a well-known consequence of smoking, but it also occurs in nonsmokers. Voelkel says some 15 percent of emphysema patients have never smoked a cigarette. Very little is known about emphysema in nonsmokers, but it’s thought to be an epigenetic phenomenon – “factors that are not strictly explained by the genetic makeup of the person.” Instead, the disease may be triggered by environmental factors such as air pollution or diet.

Voelkel, who now holds the E. Raymond Fenton, M.D., Chair in Pulmonary Diseases, arrived at VCU in the summer of 2007 after having spent nearly 30 years at the University of Colorado in Denver. He was attracted by Dean Jerry Strauss’ commitment to the science behind medicine.

Voelkel looks forward to capitalizing on the openness of the new building’s space.

“The idea is to bundle different kinds of investigators to come up with a critical mass,” he says.

Starting with a cardiologist, an endocrinologist, a lipid biochemist and a still-to-be-recruited immunologist, his group will explore the “border zones” between different specialties. By working together, talking and meeting on an ongoing basis, Voelkel says, “We can come up with solutions that an individual investigator in isolation would not come up with.”

By Jill U. Adams, for the Dean’s Discovery Report

Michael Miles, M.D., Ph.D.

MilesMichael-2009-by-Schindler.jpgMichael Miles, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and toxicology, is on a growth mission. With strong funding in recent years, the people in his lab have been pressed into pretty close quarters. Now with the promise of an Alcohol Research Center grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, pressures on space will only increase. Soon, the Miles lab will expand into the new Molecular Medicine Research Building, which Miles says will allow them the room to “decompress a little and hire new people.”

Miles’ research interest is alcoholism and why some people are more vulnerable to becoming addicted than others. Using the basic science tools of genetics, Miles studies genes that get turned on when alcohol is consumed. But rather than looking for a gene or two that influence alcohol’s effects, he takes a whole genome approach to assess the pattern of gene expression.

“We may identify some important single genes along the way, but our mantra is: ‘It’s the network, stupid’,” says Miles, who is also affiliated with the Department of Neurology.

Alcohol produces a range of effects in animal behavioral models, like reducing anxiety. Some people may drink to reduce anxiety and may keep drinking to avoid an increase in anxiety that can occur with alcohol withdrawal. Miles’ basic premise is that the way in which individual animals or humans respond to a single dose of alcohol will correlate with their risk for alcohol abuse, a relationship that’s been well documented.

A striking finding recently illustrated how Miles might apply his research. In experiments where inbred mice can choose to drink an alcohol solution or plain water, Miles says some animals drink hardly at all, while others drink like crazy, preferring alcohol 70 percent of the time compared to water.

“But they’re genetically identical,” he says, so something else must be different. “It must be something in their environment that has changed the way their genes are expressed, and that’s influencing the way they’re drinking alcohol.”

He’s identified gene networks that correlate with this drinking behavior and is now testing interventions.

“Hopefully that’s where we’ll go in the future,” he says. “To take what we learn about gene networks involved in drinking behavior to generate hypotheses about how we can intervene.”

With other pharmacology labs joining him in the new building, Miles is excited to be in the midst of a hub of activity. Not only will it be easier to share equipment, but also ideas about the effects of alcohol and other addictive drugs on behavior.

“That’s very exciting for me because I’m going to have a lot more of my colleagues over here,” says Miles. “Proximity really helps.”

By Jill U. Adams, for the Dean’s Discovery Report

Rick Zimmerman, Ph.D.

Professor of social and behavioral health
Most recent post: University of Kentucky

Rick Zimmerman, Ph.D., has always been interested in those factors that lead people to healthy or not-so-healthy behaviors. His first task at VCU’s MCV Campus will be to extend NIH-funded work he developed at the University of Kentucky – a television campaign to promote safer sex.

One new challenge will be testing the campaign in Richmond and another Southern city that both have more diverse communities than Lexington, Ky. Another will be to incorporate a new technology component, taking advantage of the Internet and perhaps online communities, such as Second Life.

Zimmerman’s interest in using behavior as an intervention point was born in his dissertation work at the University of Wisconsin, where he focused on reducing salt consumption to help prevent high blood pressure. After earning his Ph.D. in sociology, he saw AIDS take hold in Miami in the early 1980s, before the disease had a name. Even before the causative agent was known, a relevant behavioral factor was clear: sexual behavior.

“It was an interesting disease with a behavioral component,” he says, and he applied the same interventional tools to what was then a new problem.

From the University of Miami, Zimmerman moved to the University of Kentucky, where he spent time in both the Department of Communication and the College of Medicine’s behavioral science department. There he continued his work on the prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy. Zimmerman arrived at VCU in January, looking forward to being part of a new department and playing a role in the ongoing creation of a new School of Public Health. His is also looking outside the department to make connections with researchers in pharmacology, psychology, sociology, nursing and social work.

While the Virginia climate is no different from that of Kentucky, Zimmerman will appreciate the change in scenery – hiking in the mountains and watching the ocean are two activities he hopes to make time for soon.

By Jill U. Adams, for the Dean’s Discovery Report

June 12, 2009

Ann Miller Wilson


Ann Miller Wilson, M’09, is the 15th member of five generations of her family to graduate from the medical school.

The Davis family’s connection to medical school spans 128 years.
On May 15, 2009, Ann Miller Wilson shook the hand of the dean of the medical school, recited the Hippocratic Oath and joined the medical profession. Just as her great-great-grandfather must have done in 1885.
A member of the Class of 1894, John Gibson Davis, M.D., was the first of his family to attend the Medical College of Virginia. Part of the first medical school class to take the Virginia state medical board exams, he also blazed the trail that 13 of his descendants followed over the next 12 decades.
For her senior project this semester, Ann Miller Wilson—or “Miller” as she’s known—chronicled the five generations of her family who walked the halls and hospitals of the MCV Campus on their way to earning their medical degrees. Associate Professor of Anesthesiology Robert A. Kravetz, M.D., oversaw her historical research that produced a power point presentation packed with family pictures and archival documents that have somehow stood the test of time.


At the medical school’s convocation ceremony on May 15, Miller was honored as one of her class’ legacy graduates. She was joined on the stage by her grandmother Mrs. E. D. Sowder, whose father and grandfather were MCV graduates.

At his death at the age of 89, Miller’s great-great grandfather John Gibson Davis was the oldest practicing physician in the Roanoke Valley. At that point, all five of his sons had already followed in his footsteps to MCV where they too, earned their medical degrees. One of those sons was Miller’s great-grandfather Paul Davis, M’15 who would try—unsuccessfully—to discourage his daughter Pauline from carrying on the family tradition.
The summer before her matriculation to medical school, the Roanoke Times reported her father’s perspective: “It was not my idea for her to take up the study of medicine. I have discouraged the idea from the beginning, but she seems firmly convinced that this is the only thing which will make her life happy.”
Pauline Davis would become one of just eight women to graduate with an M.D. from MCV in 1942. And until this year, she was the only woman in the Davis family with that accomplishment.
Of Pauline’s three sons who became physicians, one, Paul Carmichael, M’75, drew Miller into the profession. When she was in high school and college, he permitted her to scrub into his surgeries at Roanoke Memorial Hospital.
The 15th in her family to pursue her degree on the MCV Campus, Miller predicts, “There could be more of us on the way. Dr. Gordon Carmichael’s kids are in high school and want to go to medical school… no matter what I tell them.”


Ann Miller Wilson’s senior project chronicles not only her family’s history but also reflects the changing face of medicine. View her PowerPoint presentation.

David Buxton

David Buxton has always believed in the value of volunteer service. That dedication led to his being named as the first recipient of the Harry and Zackia Shaia Scholarship that offers four-year support to a student with a demonstrated commitment to the community.

Next year, he will have responsibilities above and beyond those that come with his Brown University psychiatry residency. Buxton has been selected by the Journal of the American Medical Association as one of 12 students who will serve as next year’s editors of Virtual Mentor.

The online publication encourages medical students to discuss bioethics topics, and Buxton has already claimed a theme for his issue: pediatric palliative care. It’s a topic that reflects Buxton’s plans for his own career. He has regularly spent time shadowing Bob Archuletta, a local physician who was among the first to become board-certified in pediatric palliative care. Buxton already has a publication credit in the field with his account of grappling emotionally and spiritually with a patient’s death, which appeared in the Journal of Palliative Medicine last year.

Branden Engorn

The list of Branden Engorn’s service to his class and to his school is a long one that includes his presidency of the Medical Student Government Association, Admissions Committee member and third-year clerkship group leader. His commitment to leadership extends beyond the medical campus through community service and even to lobbying city and state officials on health concerns. On top of all this, Engorn ranks in the top of his class.

His four-year record of remarkable accomplishments was recently recognized by the Joseph Collins Foundation. Established by the late Collins to assist “ambitious and determined” students in their study of medicine, the foundation selected just four students in the nation for its Beverly Chaney Award, which carries a cash prize of $10,000.

Trio of structural biologists join physiology


Physiology – the study of how the body works – has traditionally been at the levels of tissues and systems. When Diomedes Logothetis, Ph.D., professor and John D. Bower, M.D. Endowed Chair in Physiology and Biophysics, came to VCU’s MCV Campus a year ago, he aspired to expand the department’s existing strengths to include a new specialty – molecular biophysics. The field has the same basic philosophy as the discipline of physiology, just on the tiniest of scales. Molecular biophysics zooms in to examine the structure and function of the smallest working parts of the body, such as proteins and other macromolecules.

Logothetis’s plan is taking shape with the recruitment of a number of new faculty members, three of whom will be housed in the new Molecular Medicine Research Building. Assistant professors Qinglian Liu, Ph.D., Carlos Escalante, Ph.D., and Meng Cui, Ph.D., will occupy new laboratories designed with an open floor plan to enhance interactions among them. Further, they will create what Logothetis calls a “critical mass” in structural and computational biology, with enough overlap to feel like a group and enough expertise in their specialties to stand on their own feet.

Qinglian Liu, Ph.D. is a biochemist and X-ray crystallographer who uses the method to study protein folding and movement within the cell.

Logothetis describes the technique as, “Once you have a structure from crystallography it’s like having a snapshot of a molecule in 3-D.”

And while the linear sequence of proteins is encoded by our genes, their 3-D shapes are guided by regulatory molecules known as chaperones. When proteins don’t fold properly, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s can result.

Carlos Escalante, Ph.D. is also a chemist who uses X-ray crystallography to capture the structure of multi-protein-DNA complexes. His research focuses on how the genes are expressed. In order to make the specific working cogs in our cells, our genes must first be read. That action, called transcription, is highly regulated by cellular machinery that interacts directly with the DNA molecule that makes up our genetic code. Escalante’s work contributes to better understanding the immune system, because sometimes viruses co-opt the transcriptional machinery for their own purposes when they infect a cell.

Meng Cui, Ph.D. has a degree in physical chemistry and studies macromolecules known as G-protein coupled receptors, which are the proteins that are targeted by neurotransmitters and hormones, as well as a large proportion of pharmaceuticals. He also brings the power of computational biology to the group, which Logothetis says fills the gap between the structure and the function.

Crystallography gives you the 3-D snapshot of the molecule, he explains. “But then, you want to know how that molecule works, how it moves and does the things that it does.”

In addition to becoming a core group of the new research program in molecular biophysics, the three new faculty members will complement nicely the department’s traditional strengths in the cardiovascular and digestive functions, as well as the chemical senses.

By Jill U. Adams, for the Dean’s Discovery Report

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