VCU Students and Faculty Present Research

Written by Anne Dreyfuss

More than 1,000 researchers from around the country will descend on the nation’s capital to hear from translational research experts, discuss their research findings, develop their careers, and speak with legislators about the value of scientific research at the Translational Science 2019 conference, held March 5 through 8 in Washington. The Wright Center provided a travel allowance toward attending the conference for six early-career faculty members and students who will be presenting their research posters at the four-day conference. Before they left, we caught up with the researchers to discuss their science, what they were most looking forward to about the conference, and how the Wright Center has supported them with education, training and resources to help improve the translational research process.

Hayley Billingsley, graduate student in health and movement sciences, Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences, VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, and research assistant, Division of Cardiology, Department of Internal Medicine, VCU School of Medicine

“Increased Monounsaturated Fat Consumption is Associated with Improved Body Composition in Subjects with Obesity and Heart Failure with Preserved Ejection Fraction”

Description of research: In a 12-week pilot study aimed at supplementing healthy fats (mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids) in people who had heart failure with preserved ejection fraction, increasing monounsaturated fatty acids in the diet was associated with a decrease in participants’ percent body fat, which is the amount a person’s weight is composed of fat mass. Monounsaturated fatty acids are found in foods such as extra virgin olive oil, nuts and avocados.

Impact of research: Heart failure patients currently lack evidence-based nutrition therapies. We hope this pilot study will lead to further work exploring the role of mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids as a potential nutrition therapy for these patients.

Wright Center support: I’m grateful for the Wright Center’s financial support, which has allowed me to attend Translational Science 2019.

Translational Science 2019: I’m looking forward to networking with other research professionals and learning about the NIH grant application process in conference sessions that are aimed at helping young investigators further their research.

Dr. Justin Canada, assistant professor, Division of Cardiology, Department of Internal Medicine, VCU School of Medicine, and clinical exercise physiologist, VCU Health Pauley Heart Center

“Percent Predicted Peak Exercise Oxygen Pulse is a Marker of Cardiac Reserve Following Thoracic Radiotherapy”

Description of research: Individuals who receive radiation therapy as part of treatment for chest cancers may be at risk of future cardiovascular events due to incidental radiation exposure of the heart. This can lead to symptoms of significant fatigue and shortness of breath before the diagnosis of heart problems. Measuring oxygen consumption changes during exercise may prove to be an early marker of anti-cancer treatment-related toxicity.

Impact of research: In the future, the hope is that this line of research will lead to diagnostic procedures that may help better risk-stratify cancer survivors who may be at risk of cardiotoxicity related to anti-cancer therapies such as radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy.

Wright Center support: This research would not have been possible without the support of the Wright Center, which included providing access to resources at the VCU Medical Center Clinical Research Unit. My research relied on services that were provided at the unit, including phlebotomy and nursing personnel, lab space, and echo and stress testing systems. My mentor, Wright Center associate director Dr. Antonio Abbate, who is also the medical director of the Clinical Research Unit, remains invaluable to my continued learning and growth as a clinical researcher.

Translational Science 2019: The conference hosts a National Institutes of Health Mock Study Section, which provides early-career investigators such as myself with the opportunity to review grant proposals alongside actual NIH study section members. I’m looking forward to hearing the thoughts, questions and concerns that arise as the NIH study section members review my prospective grant applications.

Dr. Salvatore Carbone, research instructor of medicine, Division of Cardiology, Department of Internal Medicine, VCU School of Medicine, and research nutritionist, VCU Health Pauley Heart Center

“A Dietary Intervention to Increase Unsaturated Fatty Acids in Patients with Obesity and Heart Failure with Preserved Ejection Fraction: An Analysis of the UFA-Preserved Pilot Study”

Description of research: We found that a diet aimed at supplementing healthy fats — also called unsaturated fatty acids, — which are found in foods like extra-virgin olive oil, mixed nuts, avocado, canola oil, and fatty fish, —  resembling the Mediterranean dietary pattern, — resulted in positive changes in the levels of fatty acids in the blood, which were in turn associated with improved exercise capacity in patients with obesity and a specific form of heart failure, called heart failure preserved ejection fraction (HFpEF).

Impact of research: About half of patients with heart failure present with HFpEF, and up to 80 percent of those with HFpEF are, in turn, overweight or obese. HFpEF lacks beneficial therapeutic strategies, so we believe the results of our study are important, as they lead to the development of a novel therapeutics in this population. We need to repeat our intervention in a larger population to confirm our findings, but the preliminary data is promising.

Wright Center support: The study was conducted in the VCU Medical Center Clinical Research Unit, which provides state-of-the-art equipment and personnel to perform high-quality research. The study was funded by the Department of Internal Medicine and the VCU Pauley Heart Center, which funds pilot projects to junior faculty like myself who are collaborating with senior faculty members.

Translational Science 2019: Being able to present data is always a great opportunity. I have been working on this project for the past three years, and receiving feedback from investigators from other institution will be very important as I move forward. Additionally, attending the conference allows me to networking with junior faculty like myself and also with senior investigators who have similar research interests, thus facilitating potential future collaboration with researchers from other institutions.

Dr. Dinesh Kadariya, assistant professor, Division of Hospital Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, VCU School of Medicine, and cardiovascular research fellow, VCU Health Pauley Heart Center

“Incidence of Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy in a Large, Urban Hospital in USA”

Description of research: Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome, is an acute heart condition in which patients present to a hospital with chest pain. Due to increased awareness, the incidences of this condition being recognized are rising, but the true incidence rate and risk factors are not well known. We evaluated the incidences of takotsubo cardiomyopathy compared to another acute heart condition that can have similar presentation, called non-ST elevated myocardial infarction, in the past eight years at VCU Medical Center.

Impact of research: Although takotsubo cardiomyopathy is typically considered benign, serious complication can happen in some cases. Increased awareness would help clinicians make the diagnosis early. Additionally, having a clearer understanding of risk factors associated with the condition may help to reduce incidences. The study was done for the first time in Richmond, and it will add to the knowledge-base and awareness of the condition among health care providers around the world.

Wright Center support: The Wright Center informatics team provided me with access to the data through TriNetX, which is a system that provides access to patient records in a de-identified, HIPAA-compliant manner. Additionally, Wright Center director Dr. F. Gerard Moeller, and associate director Dr. Antonio Abbate, supervised the design, analysis and presentation of the study.

Translational Science 2019: I’m looking forward to meeting the other conference attendees who are motivated and enthusiastic to discover new things that will advance the medical sciences and help future generations live healthier lives.

Amy Northrop, Ph.D. candidate, Department of Human and Molecular Genetics, VCU School of Medicine

“Targeting DDI2 to Potentiate Proteasome Inhibitor-induced Cell Death in Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Cells”

Description of Research: The proteasome is widely regarded as a recycling center in the cell — responsible for degrading proteins that are mutated, misfolded, or not needed by the cell at that time. Cancer cells are highly dependent on the proteasome to degrade the copious amounts of mutant proteins they produce, and allow them to rapidly divide, but proteasome inhibition as a cancer therapy has largely failed to effectively treat most types of cancer. One explanation for this failure is a compensatory cellular mechanism called the NRF1-mediated proteasome bounce-back response, which allows the cell to respond to proteasome inhibition and evade cell death by making more, uninhibited proteasomes to prevent the build-up of proteins that need to be degraded. My research focuses on therapeutically crippling the bounce-back response to allow proteasome inhibitors to more effectively kill many types of cancer cells, thus (hopefully) expanding the repertoire of cancer types for which proteasome inhibition can be used as an effective cancer therapy.

Impact of research: The research is currently focused on triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), but if we are able potentiate proteasome inhibitor-induced cancer cell killing using TNBC as a model, there may be broader implications for other types of cancer that have also been previously unresponsive to proteasome inhibition as a therapeutic.

Wright Center support: The Wright Center is providing me with a travel allowance to attend the conference. I would neither have submitted an abstract, nor be attending, if it were not for the Wright Center.

Translational Science 2019: I’m most looking forward to participating in the Capitol Hill advocacy visit on Wednesday, where I will join other researchers in meetings with state senators and representatives to talk about the importance of funding clinical and translational science.

Dr. Cory Trankle, chief cardiology fellow, Cardiovascular Disease Fellowship, Department of Internal Medicine, VCU School of Medicine

“Interleukin-1 Blockade in Patients with Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension and Right Ventricular Failure” and “Alirocumab in Acute Myocardial Infarction: Results from the Virginia Commonwealth University Alirocumab Response Trial (VCU-AlirocRT)”

Description of research:

“Interleukin-1 Blockade in Patients with Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension and Right Ventricular Failure”: Pulmonary hypertension is a rare, but dangerous disease involving high pressures in the arteries leading to the lungs. Studies involving animal models of pulmonary hypertension suggested that targeted anti-inflammatory therapy could be beneficial in this disease state. We tested, for the first time in this population, an open-label treatment of anakinra in patients with pulmonary arterial hypertension, showing that we could safely reduce the inflammation levels. There were some encouraging additional findings, including that patients felt better overall on the therapy, and the reductions in inflammation were correlated with improvements in their ability to exercise.

“VCU-AlirocRT”: There are two new powerful cholesterol-lowering medications called PCSK9 inhibitors, which are Food and Drug Administration-approved. One of them — alirocumab — has shown that patients with a history of heart attacks (one to 12 months before starting treatment) overall have fewer events (heart attacks, stroke, or death) if they receive this medication. However, there has never been a study evaluating the use of alirocumab at the timeof a heart attack. We tested, for the first time in a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study, the use of alirocumab in patients being admitted to the hospital with a heart attack. We showed that it is safe and effective in lowering the “bad” cholesterol — LDL cholesterol — within 72 hours of a heart attack. Determining if this will result in improved outcomes will require larger studies.

Impact of research: The research could potentially help patients with pulmonary arterial hypertension, which is a rare disease that is in dire need of better treatments, and patients who are coming to the hospital with heart attacks.

Wright Center support: The Wright Center provided the facilities for the pulmonary arterial hypertension study, particularly the VCU Medical Center Clinical Research Unit, which allowed for a one-stop location to provide a wide array of sophisticated testing: cardiopulmonary exercise testing, echocardiography, and phlebotomy with biomarker measurement. The alirocumab study was also supported by the Clinical Research Unit, which allowed for phlebotomy and biomarker measurements and clinical visit coordination.

Translational Science 2019: I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to broadcast our research findings and discuss our research with experts in the field.