Press inquiries or questions about communications and media:
Greg Weatherford
Director of communications, VCU School of Pharmacy
(804) 828-6470 (office) | (804) 937-4722 (mobile)

Pharmacy named No. 1 school at VCU for inclusion and engagement

Students in graduation regalia hold their right hands up.
Graduating students from the Pharm.D. Class of 2019 recite the Oath of a Pharmacist. (Danny Tiet photo)

Greg Weatherford
Director of Communications, VCU School of Pharmacy

The School of Pharmacy has been named the most inclusive academic department at VCU — a notable distinction at a university that has long cited inclusion as a main priority. 

The honor is the result of an exhaustive survey by VCU’s Division for Inclusive Excellence

The Office of Development and Alumni Relations was ranked No. 1 at VCU, with the School of Pharmacy placing second overall. 

Only three of the 10 top-ranked units for campus climate were academic units. School of Nursing and the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs were ranked 8th and 10th, respectively.

“Diversity and inclusion are central to our mission and to everything we do at Virginia Commonwealth University,” said Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU and VCU Health. “Every member of our community benefits from working, living, learning, creating, discovering and healing in an environment where ideas are openly shared and all voices are heard.”

Faculty and staff reported highly inclusive and engaged environments where leadership was perceived as having integrity related to diversity issues. There were also strong feelings of motivation and competency among faculty and staff in the workplace. 

“We have initiated a different approach to faculty and staff relationships, breaking down some of the barriers in between,” said Joseph T. DiPiro, dean of the School of Pharmacy. “While we celebrate the recognition for ‘campus climate’ we will continue to seek new ways to assure that our school remains a great place to work.”

Major academic and administrative units are assessed every 18 months and are rated and ranked based on their performance on three indices: diversity index, inclusion index and engagement index. 

Models of Inclusive Excellence award winners will be recognized during the Presidential Awards for Community Multicultural Enrichment (PACME) ceremony held in spring 2020. Each administrative and academic unit will receive a plaque and $2,500 to support diversity and inclusion goals.

VCU Pharmacy graduate returns home to help her twin sister and veterans

Anesa Hughes’ twin sister has cerebral palsy. Her Southwest Virginia community is struggling. She knew she had to do something.
By Greg Weatherford
School of Pharmacy

Lebanon, Virginia, is a small town nestled in the mountains of Appalachia, where Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky come together. It’s a region built on coal mining. As that industry dwindled and jobs have grown scarce, the town and the region have struggled.

This is where Anesa Hughes, Pharm.D., grew up. As a child, she saw how her parents, like many of their neighbors, sometimes struggled to afford health care.

Health care has been vital to Hughes’ family. Her twin sister has cerebral palsy and other health problems and needs 24-hour care.

Seeing her parents’ struggles inspired Hughes to pursue education.

“Early on, I knew that I was going to have to go to college to provide some kind of financial support for not only myself, but for my sister later on in life,” she said.

A helpful neighboring pharmacist suggested she consider pharmacy school. Hughes earned a doctorate in pharmacy in 2018 at VCU School of Pharmacy. She now works at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee — not far from her family’s mountain home.

Virginia Commonwealth University has produced a mini-documentary on Hughes and her family, filmed over several years and across Virginia.

Pharmacy joins with engineering to make inhaled medications more effective for infants

Pharmaceutical aerosols are painless, fast-acting and less likely to cause side effects than medicines delivered via pills or injections. Yet inhaled therapies are often avoided because of the challenges associated with targeting how aerosol particles are deposited within the lung.

“Current inhalers produce fairly large particles, so approximately 90 percent of the medication gets lost in the mouth and throat. It’s swallowed and wasted. This prevents many medications from being delivered through the inhalation route, even though there are a number of advantages to be gained, such as improved efficacy and reduced side effects,” said Worth Longest, Ph.D., the Louis S. and Ruth S. Harris Exceptional Scholar Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering in the VCU College of Engineering.

Simply making the particles smaller isn’t a solution.

“The problem with making the particles smaller is that they go in really well — but they also come straight back out during exhalation,” said Michael Hindle, Ph.D., the Peter R. Byron Distinguished Professor in the VCU School of Pharmacy.

With three National Institutes of Health R01 grants totaling more than $7 million, Longest and Hindle are applying a combined engineering and pharmaceutical approach to make inhaled medications more effective and available.

Four researchers stand in a line.
Members of the interdisciplinary team designing a new way to administer inhaled medicines to infants and preterm babies. (From left) Sarah Strickler, Michael Hindle, Ph.D., Worth Longest, Ph.D. and Connor Howe.

In “High-Efficiency Aerosol Delivery Using the Excipient Enhanced Growth Concept: A Human Proof of Concept Study,” Longest and Hindle have created a novel platform that produces particles that are tiny when they enter the lungs — but grow in size as they travel down the warm, humid airways. This platform comprises a device that uses a mixer-heater to produce tiny particles, about one-fifth the size of those from conventional inhalers.

With this delivery concept, a pharmaceutical powder or liquid is enhanced with a hygroscopic excipient, essentially a substance that attracts water. “Your lungs are full of water,” Hindle said. “So if you put something inside your lungs that likes water, it’s going to swell and grow in size and not be expelled.” Using sodium chloride — salt — as the hygroscopic excipient, they have tested their system in vitro.

The results have been promising.

“We’ve flipped the needle,” Longest said. “Previously, only 10 percent of the initial dose would reach the lung, and that 10 percent was poorly targeted within different lung regions. With our approach, you can get 90 percent in and distribute that 90 percent evenly, or target a specific lung region.”

The researchers will begin testing their method on adults in two human proof-of-concept trials beginning in late 2019 and early 2020.

There are currently no inhalers on the market specifically designed for children or infants, even though their inhaling patterns and volumes differ from those of adults.

In two separate but related NIH studies, Longest and Hindle are adapting this concept for patients ranging in age from newborn to 6 years old. Each project proposes a device approximately the size of a lipstick tube that contains a pediatric formulation (liquid or powder) enhanced with a hygroscopic excipient. There are currently no inhalers on the market specifically designed for children or infants, even though their inhaling patterns and volumes differ from those of adults. Pediatric patients therefore must use adult-sized devices.

One study focuses on targeted lung delivery of the antibiotic tobramycin to children with cystic fibrosis, a population prone to respiratory infection because of overproduction of mucus in the lungs. Pediatric cystic fibrosis patients with lung infections usually receive the medication via, 20-minute nebulizer treatments daily, sometimes up to four per day.

Longest and Hindle’s proposed alternative is a pediatric dry powder inhaler that is fast and easy to use. Because its particles are engineered to reach the deep lung, it is expected to eradicate infection more efficiently because there is less risk of resistant strains of bacteria forming in undertreated regions of the lung.

The other study focuses on delivery of surfactant aerosols to premature infants. Surfactant is a substance found in healthy lungs that keeps the tissue supple enough to expand and contract properly. The respiratory system is among the last to develop in utero, so in newborns and preemies, this substance is sometimes not fully developed — or not present at all.

When these infants experience severe respiratory distress, the current protocol is to intubate and administer large doses of liquid surfactant to the lung by way of the throat. This highly invasive and potentially dangerous procedure causes distress and blood pressure fluctuations. In this third NIH-funded study, the researchers are also developing a tiny, small volume nebulizer and a dry powder inhaler for efficient, noninvasive respiratory support for infants.

These in-vitro studies are titled “High-Efficiency Inhalation Delivery of Tobramycin for Children with Cystic Fibrosis” and “High-Efficiency Delivery of Surfactant Aerosols to Infants without Intubation.”

They involve collaborators from across VCU, including Jürgen Venitz, M.D., Ph.D., vice chair and professor of pharmaceutics in the School of Pharmacy; Kelly Dodson, Ph.D., associate professor of otolaryngology; Bruce Rubin, M.D., the Jessie Ball DuPont Distinguished Professor and chair of pediatrics; Douglas Willson, M.D., professor of pediatrics; Robert Meredith, M.D., assistant professor of radiology; Rebecca Heise, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering; Dennis Ohman, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology; Jamal Zweit, Ph.D., director of the VCU Center for Molecular Imaging; Sundaresan Gobalakrishnan, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular imaging and radiology; Aamer Syed, M.D., assistant professor of internal medicine; Christine DeWilde, R.N., associate director of clinical research programs in the Johnson Center for Critical Care and Pulmonary Research; and Anna Priday, regulatory manager in the Johnson Center.

$6.8M grant supports research at VCU interdisciplinary center on opioids and other addictions

Pill bottles lined up.

By Greg Weatherford
VCU School of Pharmacy

Every day more than 130 people in the United States die from opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — enough people each year to fill an Olympic stadium.

That’s why Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine and School of Pharmacy have teamed up on a $6.8 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to support an interdisciplinary research center on addiction to opioids and other drugs of abuse.

The grant to the Central Virginia Center on Drug Abuse Research at VCU will encourage researchers at Virginia universities and collaborating institutions to work together on projects that cut across scientific disciplines to treat drug addiction and the damage it wreaks.

William Dewey, Ph.D., the center’s director and chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at VCU School of Medicine, has led research on opioid and other addictions for more than four decades at VCU. Dewey said he views the center’s five-year funding as pivotal in the search for solutions to the suffering caused by the opioid crisis.

“Drugs of abuse like opioids don’t care what area of study someone specializes in,” Dewey said. “We are approaching research on these drugs the same way.”

The grant will fund work in four key areas:

  • Gastrointestinal research led by Hamid Akbarali, Ph.D., the Harvey and Gladys Haag Professor of Pharmacology in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at VCU School of Medicine
  • Bioanalytical work led by Matthew Halquist, Ph.D., assistant professor and laboratory director in the Department of Pharmaceutics in VCU School of Pharmacy
  • Research related to genetic engineering and viral vectors led by Aron Lichtman, Ph.D., associate dean for research and graduate studies at VCU School of Pharmacy and professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at VCU School of Medicine and the Department of Medicinal Chemistry at VCU School of Pharmacy
  • Neuropharmacology research led by S. Stevens Negus, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at VCU School of Medicine

“With the magnitude of this health crisis, the work of Dr. Dewey’s team is critical to fighting this epidemic. We are extremely pleased about this grant and the collaborative approach it supports – it is a testament to Bill’s longstanding work in this area,” said Peter Buckley, M.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine and executive vice president for medical affairs at VCU Health System.

William Dewey, Ph.D.
William Dewey, Ph.D.

In addition, the grant will allow up to $120,000 per year to support promising drug-abuse research proposals from other researchers. Funds for these pilot grants include support from VCU’s vice president for research and innovation and VCU’s schools of Medicine and Pharmacy as well as NIDA.

“This grant continues VCU’s commitment to transformative and impactful research aimed at understanding and alleviating the suffering we see in the opioid epidemic,” said P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., VCU’s vice president for research and innovation. “VCU’s national reputation for discovery in the area of substance abuse and addiction is bringing bold and ambitious new opportunities for our faculty to pursue multidisciplinary research.”

By bringing together researchers who study differing ways opioids and other drugs interact with the human body — from pain receptors to the gut to the central nervous system — the center will pursue novel treatments.

“Opioid abuse is a complex issue. This grant will encourage scientific research across the silos that so often keep people from working together,” said Lichtman, core leader and scientific director.

“The opioid crisis has many facets, from molecular chemistry and pharmaceutical research to the health care providers at the front lines. A health research center that draws together different perspectives is a perfect match for VCU,” said Joseph T. DiPiro, Pharm.D., the Archie O. McCalley Chair and Dean of VCU School of Pharmacy.

“We want to stop this awful scourge that is destroying so many lives,” Dewey said. “If our research means we save one life that alone will be worth it.”

“There’s going to be so much opportunity”: Kelly Goode on the future of community pharmacy

A woman stands outside wearing a white coat.
Increasing the healthcare role of pharmacies is “a natural fit,” Goode says. “You’re seeing community pharmacies visited by patients and consumers much more than other healthcare providers.

Community pharmacies today are much more than places to pick up medications. Pharmacists and other health-care workers increasingly are taking on additional roles and working to improve patient health. 

In a recent article in Pharmacy, Jean-Venable “Kelly” Goode, Pharm.D., examines the evolution of community pharmacy in the United States. We spoke to her about what these shifts might mean for the profession and for patients. 

Goode, who holds a B.S. and doctorate in pharmacy from VCU, is a professor and director of the community pharmacy practice and residency program at VCU School of Pharmacy. She also is president of the Virginia Pharmacists Association and a recent past president of the American Pharmacists Association. Co-authors for the article include Sharon Gatewood, Pharm.D., associate professor in the VCU School of Pharmacy. 

VCU School of Pharmacy: Why is it important for community pharmacy to evolve?

Jean-Venable “Kelly” Goode, Pharm.D.: When we look at the margins and the pressures on just the product, it’s causing pharmacies to not really be able to stay in business. There are lots of pressures on drug cost, as well as insurance companies and pharmacy benefit managers taking money from community pharmacies, money that they don’t really know if it’s going to be taken. We’re losing a lot of smaller pharmacies, but it’s also hitting some of our larger chain pharmacies as well.

There’s not necessarily the ability to support the business based on just the product. And pharmacists are trained to do much more, right? We are taking care of patients and really taking more responsibility for medication outcomes. 

[Community pharmacies are] a natural fit to be an access point because you’re seeing community pharmacies visited by patients and consumers much more than other healthcare providers. That access point, sometimes the first entry into the healthcare system, is done in a community pharmacy.

Why haven’t more pharmacists and pharmacies already evolved into something like that? 

Again, it’s financial a little bit. Pharmacists have traditionally been associated with that product, and payment is attached to the product. And so when we look at expanding services beyond the product, there has to be some sort of way to maintain that as well. It can’t always be value added or given in complement to a product. And there are not very many good mechanisms in most states for pharmacists to get paid for those other services, because they may or may not be recognized as a healthcare provider.

Even if they’re recognized as a healthcare provider, [that] doesn’t mean that people who are paying for services — third-party payers, insurance companies — are recognizing them for payment.

There are a couple of states that have been able to get pharmacists paid by passing legislation that requires payers to pay pharmacists for any services that they would pay another healthcare provider for if it is in the pharmacist’s scope of practice. We don’t have that law here in Virginia or have legislation for that in Virginia. So it’s really either relying upon the patient to pay for the service, or a third-party payer to pay for the service. … 

If you look at the long list in the Social Security Act for payment for service [under Medicare], pharmacists are not listed there. And that’s what the profession’s has been fighting for at Capitol Hill for years, trying to get legislation so pharmacists can be inserted into that Social Security Act as a provider.

How crucial is that to achieving the goals that you lay out in your article?

It’s a piece of it. Many pharmacists are also doing workarounds. When you look at some of the structure, there are pharmacists who have been able to work on teams and collaborate with physicians, helping physicians meet quality measures. There are a lot of quality measures in primary care that are related to medication use. Having that collaboration with the pharmacist partner can help the physician meet quality measures, which increases physician payment in primary-care practice.

Some pharmacists have been able to work with primary care practices and get their pharmacists involved in those practices. They send a pharmacist to the practice to see patients, or those patients come to the community pharmacy, and the physician pays a piece of what they’re getting paid to take care of that patient to the pharmacist who’s doing the actual work.

That’s a workaround, because the pharmacist isn’t getting directly paid from the third-party payer; the physician is, and then it comes back to the pharmacist. 

Patients can pay out-of-pocket if they see value. Many times they’re using a flexible spending account, and they can pay the pharmacist and some of the services out of a medical flex spending account. So there are other ways sort of to do it. You can also direct contract with payers — some pharmacies are doing that. Medicaid is stepping up in some states to pay pharmacists to manage medications as well.

What are some of the most encouraging or positive signs that you’ve seen as far as the future of the profession in this direction?

We’re seeing pharmacists out in the community taking care of patients and being able to go beyond just being tied to those four walls of the pharmacy. They’re in patients’ homes, they’re in community centers, they’re in shopping malls, they’re in work places providing care to patients. And that’s really that access piece — putting the pharmacist front and foremost as a patient care provider.

As part of that, what we’re seeing with these enhanced services is the creation of networks. For example, Community Pharmacy Enhanced Services Networks. They started out in North Carolina. We’re seeing many states begin to develop their own networks, which put those pharmacies that are offering these enhanced services together so that they can then perhaps contract with payers to take better care of patients within those communities.

Is there some reluctance to move in this direction among some people in the profession?

It depends.

Are you hearing reluctance?

There’s a lot of talk about workplace well-being. And as we look at the payment stream — which is typically now just for the product — that requires pharmacists to push out more product, push it out faster and push out more during the day or the hours. And we’re not the only healthcare profession getting squeezed that way, right? Physicians are getting squeezed to see more patients per hour as well because they’re paid based on the patients they see.

So there’s a lot of, perhaps, workplace conditions that are not the best for pharmacists. As a result, sometimes they see extra services as “something extra I have to do within this workplace day.” So it’s based on depending upon where you are and the practice that you’re in, whether or not you’re able to do this.

I think most people when they step back from sort of that day-to-day grind and what’s happening, they see this as where the profession needs to go. And I think from schools and colleges of pharmacy, this is definitely where we’re teaching our student pharmacists to go in the future. I think we’re going to see lots more innovation and sort of stepping outside of what we see as the traditional role.

A quote: "There is going to be so much opportunity. If you look at where pharmacists are, pharmacists are everywhere, right?"

What would you tell somebody who’s interested in possibly going into pharmacy but they don’t know what to expect with all this change?

There’s going to be so much opportunity. If you look at where pharmacists are, pharmacists are everywhere, right? 

If you want to make a difference in patient care, pharmacy is probably a great place to be because it gives you lots of opportunities. We see pharmacists in the FDA. We’re seeing pharmacists who are pharmacist lawyers, doing policy. We see associations, pharmacists within that changing practice.

It’s really wide open to what you can do with a pharmacy degree, but it’s probably going to look a little different. It also right now might be painful for a little while as we sort of readjust, and healthcare readjusts. I think that there’s got to be a balance back. 

I think all healthcare is going through sort of a readjustment, because you hear some of the same conversations within medicine about wellbeing and what’s happening to physicians.

It’s not just pharmacy that’s feeling this, it’s everybody. And I think if we look at team-based practice, the pharmacist is key to that. Then we can all help each other. 

If somebody were to take one takeaway from this article, what would you point to?

This role of the community-based pharmacist practitioner and really taking care of patients. I hear it from student pharmacists: They say they don’t want to do community-based practice because they want to be clinical. But every single pharmacist is clinical. Community-based pharmacists are clinical every day. Even when they’re “just” dispensing medications, they’re making clinical decisions.

I think it’s this role of this community-based practitioner that’s doing more beyond than the clinical activities attached to the product, but really taking care of patients. And there’s lots of opportunity for community-based pharmacists.

Goode has received awards and recognition including the Virginia Pharmacists Association’s 2014 Ed D. Spearbeck Virginia Pharmacist Service Award, APhA’s Daniel B. Smith Practice Excellence Award in 2011, the inaugural National Association of Chain Drug Stores Foundation Community Pharmacy Faculty Award in 2009, the APhA Community Pharmacy Residency Excellence in Precepting Award in 2008, the VCU Distinguished Service Award in 2005, the APhA-APPM Distinguished Achievement Award in Clinical/Pharmacotherapeutic Practice in 2004, the VCU School of Pharmacy Teaching Excellence Award in 2003 and the Virginia Society of Health-System Pharmacists Practice Innovation Award in 1997.

Be bold, Class of 2023 is urged at White Coat Ceremony

Members of the Pharm.D. Class of 2023 recite the student pharmacist’s oath at their White Coat Ceremony. (Photo: Johnny Nguyen)

Greg Weatherford
VCU School of Pharmacy

Be fearless. 

That’s the message keynote speaker Michelle Thomas, Pharm.D., gave the VCU School of Pharmacy Class of 2023 and assembled friends, family and fellow classmates. 

They gathered Saturday, Sept. 28, at St. Paul’s Baptist in Henrico County to celebrate the White Coat Ceremony for VCU School of Pharmacy’s latest Pharm.D class. 

To the strains of a Holst march, the Class of 2023 entered the cavernous auditorium as family members stood proudly, cameras aloft to capture the moment. 

Joseph T. DiPiro, Pharm.D., dean of the school and Archie O. McCalley chair, reminded the audience of the purpose of the ceremony. “This is an important event for us,” he said. “This ceremony serves as a formal public commitment and affirmation that these students accept their responsibility as pharmacists.”

The white coat represents many virtues including trust, compassion, integrity and altruism, DiPiro added. In accepting it, “you are committing to the highest standards of professional and ethical behavior. … Pharmacy is one of the most highly respected professions. Society will look to you as leaders.” 

In her keynote, Thomas, who recently finished her term as president of the VIrginia Pharmacists Association, drew from her own life to illustrate times she had pursued her path bravely — and times she had not.

A screen shows a woman speaking into a microphone. Behind the screen people sit in an auditorium.
“My greatest challenge was to have the courage to chart the course of my own success.,” keynote speaker Michelle Thomas, Pharm.D., told the Class of 2023.

Interweaving snippets from the Sara Bareilles song “Brave,” Thomas encouraged the students to pursue three types of courage: “‘try’ courage,” “‘tell’ courage” and “‘trust’ courage.” 

Thomas is a graduate of University of Kentucky’s pharmacy school and the daughter of MCV alumnus Dan Herbert (’66/Pharmacy), who founded Bremo Pharmacy in 1976. 

When she was in pharmacy school, Thomas said, she worried about remembering the many facts required by her studies. 

“What I didn’t realize,” she continued, “was that facts weren’t the most important aspect of success. My greatest challenge was to have the courage to chart the course of my own success.” 

To illustrate “‘try’ courage,” Thomas relayed the story of how she decided to leave retail pharmacy, where she had a good job and a family legacy, to invent and pursue a position as pharmacist as part of a medical practice. She now is pharmacist practitioner at Chickahominy Family Practice. 

“‘Tell’ courage,” Thomas said, is the bravery to speak truthfully and directly, even at the risk of embarrassing yourself or offending others. “I still struggle with this one,” she acknowledged. 

“‘Trust’ courage” — the acceptance that not everything is possible to control — was the third kind of bravery Thomas cited. 

She recalled times when she had fallen short of the compassion and empathy for her patients that she wanted to embody. “Be brave enough to notice and acknowledge shame, pain and sorrow in others,” Thomas added. “Let them see the bright, shining part of you.” 

And Thomas reminded listeners that discouragement is inevitable and encouraged them to find opportunities for positive experiences that can drown out the ones that make us discouraged. 

One by one, from Acors to Zeidan, members of the Class of 2023 were called to the stage to receive their white coats, the symbols of the profession of pharmacy. The white coats’ cost was supported in part by donations from alumni John Beckner (’78/Pharmacy) and Pam Beckner (’83/MSW).

A crowd in auditorium seats.
Faculty, family and friends attended the ceremony. (Photo: Johnny Nguyen)

The Pharm.D. class of 2023 comprises 103 students — 74 women and 29 men. Their ages range from 19 to 37, with an average age of 23. 

About 8 out of 10 call Virginia home; the same proportion attended college in the commonwealth, with the largest number — 34 — having earned an undergraduate degree from VCU. Virginia Tech graduates made up the second-largest share of in-state graduates, with 18. Four members of the class began pharmacy school without baccalaureate degrees.

They were greeted by Dean DiPiro and assisted into their white coats by 2019 Teacher of the Year Lauren Caldas, Pharm.D., an assistant professor in the school’s Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science. 

Dan Buth, student body president and a member of the Class of 2021, led the newly coated pharmacy students in the oath of a student pharmacist. 

The vaulted auditorium rang with applause as faculty, family and fellow students rose to officially welcome the Class of 2023 to the profession of pharmacy. 

School welcomes new faculty

Clockwise from top left: Anderson, Cen, Roman, Crawford.

VCU School of Pharmacy is proud to welcome its newest faculty members. From practitioners with long associations with the school to researchers choosing to move to VCU from other states, these recent arrivals continue our pursuit of excellence in health care, research and teaching.

Photo of Apryl Anderson.
  • Apryl N. Anderson, Pharm.D.
    Title: Assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacotherapy & Outcomes Science
    Most recent job before this one: PGY2 in academic pharmacy, VCU School of Pharmacy
    Something most people don’t know about you: I’ve co-piloted a plane (for about five minutes, but still).

Photo of Yana Cen.
  • Name: Yana Cen, Ph.D.
  • Title: Assistant professor
  • Most recent job before this one: Assistant professor at Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

Photo of Alexis Crawford
  • Name: Alexis N. Crawford, Pharm.D.
  • Title: Assistant professor
  • Most recent job before this one: Critical care clinical pharmacy specialist and PGY1 residency coordinator for Bon Secours Memorial Regional Medical Center.
  • Something most people don’t know about you: I have three daughters, am married to a pharmacist, and am allergic to oranges but can tolerate all other citrus (it’s weird!).

Photo of Youssef Roman.
  • Name: Youssef Roman, Ph.D.
  • Title: Assistant professor
  • Most recent job before this one: Assistant professor at the Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy, Hilo, Hawaii.
  • Something most people don’t know about you: I was born and raised in Egypt so I can speak and write in Arabic.

State approves nation’s first Ph.D. program in pharmaceutical engineering

Pharmaceutical engineering and sciences make up key components of the $1.2 trillion pharmaceutical industry. (Image: Getty)
Greg Weatherford
VCU School of Pharmacy
(804) 828-6470

Virginia Commonwealth University will be home to the nation’s first Ph.D. program in pharmaceutical engineering.

The doctoral program, a collaboration between VCU’s School of Pharmacy and College of Engineering, will focus on research and training students in areas of drug product development such as continuous manufacturing and drug-containing nanomaterials. 

VCU received formal notice of the program’s approval  by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). 

“As a nationally prominent research institution, VCU is proud to lead the next wave of pharmaceutical innovation,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “I am grateful to SCHEV for its support of this program and for recognizing how it can benefit the commonwealth and the world.” 

The doctoral program will start its first class in the fall of 2020. Its multidisciplinary curriculum will offer students unique professional development opportunities and will cover advanced topics in the field, experimental techniques, and scientific integrity, along with extensive directed and independent cross-disciplinary research. 

“Our mission is to provide a student-centric, collaborative and team-based experience for our students. We will prepare the future generation of science and engineering leaders who can act in the pharmaceutical industry as well as in regulatory areas and academic settings,” said Sandro da Rocha, Ph.D., director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Sciences in the School of Pharmacy and professor of pharmaceutics. “By training scientists in better delivery systems and new medicines and therapies, we intend to find ways to treat complex diseases, even ones that have been considered untreatable.”

Pharmaceutical engineering and sciences make up key components of the $1.2 trillion pharmaceutical industry. It is a convergent branch of science and engineering that uses a cross-disciplinary approach to design, develop and manufacture pharmaceutical products. Some examples include:

  • Applying materials science and engineering to the development of drug delivery carriers and devices
  • Applying nanoscience and nanotechnology to medicine
  • Developing new technologies for the manufacture of chemicals and biologically active ingredients
  • Using computer science and engineering to model processes, harvest and analyze data for the design, discovery and manufacture of active ingredients  
  • Using engineering and physiology for the development of new devices and formulations 
  • Designing and manufacturing novel formulations for specific delivery profiles  

“The doctoral program in pharmaceutical engineering continues VCU’s advance to a nationally recognized hub for entrepreneurial research and drug delivery, development and manufacturing,” said Thomas D. Roper, Ph.D., the center director in the College of Engineering and a professor of chemical and life-science engineering.

Historically, investment in the development of new medicines has focused on research more than on product delivery and manufacturing. In recent years, however, the United States Food and Drug Administration has encouraged innovations in delivery systems such as nanomedicine and improvements in manufacturing processes to help ensure that patients get the medicines they need safely and effectively. 

“The VCU School of Pharmacy has always prepared professionals for the health care needs of the future,” said Joseph T. DiPiro, Pharm.D., dean of the pharmacy school and Archie O. McCalley chair. “This new Ph.D. program supports that mission, and cements VCU’s status as a groundbreaker in health-related education in ways that have visible and powerful effects on our communities.” 

Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Jr. dean of the College of Engineering, said, “With the creation of the pharmaceutical engineering Ph.D. program, VCU is seeking to become a national leader in the education of the pharmaceutical workforce of today and innovators leading future developments. The program will address the growing need for a new generation of researchers trained in cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary science who recognize the need for a team-based approach to solving challenges related to the design and manufacturing of pharmaceutical products.” Learn more about the Center for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Sciences here.

Zhu designs drug delivery systems to test nanovaccines for brain and skin cancer

Guizhong Zhu, Ph.D., holds several grants to support studies on nanovaccines for glioma, a tumor of the brain and spinal cord, and melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
By Blake Belden

Having a research laboratory on a medical campus, Guizhi Zhu, Ph.D., will often cross paths with cancer patients, and it’s during those instances that he is most driven to continue his work.

“I sometimes feel helpless because I can’t do much for them in that moment other than saying some kind words,” he said. “Those are the moments that help me focus on my research to potentially have an impact that can change or improve therapeutic outcomes for cancer patients.”

Guizhi “Julian” Zhu uses innovative drug delivery platforms to test the efficacy of novel immunotherapeutics for a variety of disease types including skin, liver, brain, colorectal and breast cancers.

He joined VCU Massey Cancer Center as an associate member of the Developmental Therapeutics research program in 2018, and he is an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmaceutics and Center for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Sciences at the VCU School of Pharmacy.

Leveraging an extensive background in engineering, chemistry and pharmacology, Zhu designs targeted drug delivery systems and develops cancer nanomedicines such as nucleic acid nanovaccines for enhanced therapeutic benefit. Nanovaccines are vaccines that dispense microscopic particles into the immune system to stimulate a response against cancer cells, and they hold promise for treating disease more effectively than existing vaccines. Zhu tests a variety of nucleic acids, including immunomodulatory DNA/RNA, gene-expression modulation DNA/RNA, drug-encoding mRNA or gene-editing nucleic acids.

Zhu currently holds several grants to support studies on nanovaccines for glioma, a tumor of the brain and spinal cord, and melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Under the mentorship of Steven Grossman, M.D., Ph.D., deputy director of Massey, Zhu holds an American Cancer Society Institutional Research Grant (ACS-IRG) to study the combination of an immunotherapy and an immuno-activating chemotherapy to treat melanoma.

He is also one of the principal investigators , together with Kristoffer Valerie, Ph.D., and Paula Bos, Ph.D., members of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program at Massey, on a Massey Pilot Project that will explore the combination of a nanovaccine, immune re-energizing drugs and radiation therapy to treat glioma in mouse models.  

“This project is really exciting because there isn’t a durably effective treatment option for glioma,” Zhu said. “We hope that by using radiation we can jump start the tumor microenvironment to make immunotherapy more effective.”

He is a KL2 Mentored Clinical Research Scholar under the mentorship of Douglas Sweet, Ph.D., and Sandro da Rocha, Ph.D., an Endowment Fund awardee from the VCU Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research and a VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund recipient.

Zhu leads a research team of six postdocs and graduate students as well as multiple undergraduate students and visiting scholars.

He grew up in China where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from Nankai University. Zhu moved to the United States, where he earned his Ph.D. in medical science – physiology and pharmacology – and also completed a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer nanomedicine at the University of Florida. He finished a second postdoctoral fellowship in cancer immunotherapy and bioimaging from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering in Maryland. During this time, Zhu collaborated in famous and well-established laboratories to engineer and image nanomedicines. It was following this fellowship when he centered his work around cancer immunotherapies.

“Because the nature of my work is heavily focused on cancer immunotherapy, the scientific combination of pharmaceutics and cancer offers an ideal environment for me at Massey,” Zhu said.

Zhu has published more than 70 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including Nature Communications, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Journal of the American Chemical Society, ACS NanoAngewandte Chemie, among others. His publications have been cited by peers more than 4,500 times in the past five years, according to Google Scholar. Zhu is a member of the American Chemical Society, the Oligonucleotide Therapeutics Society and the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer. He received a Distinguished Scientist Award from the National Institutes of Health in 2017, and he was awarded the Alan M. Gewirtz Memorial Fellowship by the Oligonucleotide Therapeutics Society (2013), among other awards.

Zhu lives with his daughter and mother in Richmond, and they await the arrival of his wife who is close to finishing her doctoral degree in food science and nutrition in Maryland.

Living with little-known disorder Ehlers-Danlos sparked Miss Virginia’s love of science

The little-known disorder that inspired Miss Virginia's love of science

One month ago, VCU Pharm.D. student Camille Schrier won the title of Miss Virginia with the help of her science-related talent. Millions have seen her story. But not many people know about the genetic condition she lives with that inspired her career in science. Watch our exclusive video to learn more and read Camille's full story at Music courtesy of Photos courtesy of Cheryl Schrier

Posted by VCU School of Pharmacy on Monday, July 22, 2019

By Emiley Bagalawis
VCU School of Pharmacy News

Camille Schrier won the title of Miss Virginia in June with the help of her science-related talent exhibition — a demonstration of the catalytic conversion of hydrogen peroxide that created a dramatic burst of colored foam on the pageant stage. 

That win and the video of her demonstration led millions to see her story on TV news reports, social media and websites. She has been hailed for breaking stereotypes and as a role model for young women.

But most people have no idea of the disorder that helped inspire her career in science. 

Camille is living with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic condition that affects body tissue, joints and blood vessels. She was diagnosed when she was 11. 

“It definitely got me interested in science and medicine because there’s no treatment for this right now,” Camille says. “There was a lot of genetic information regarding EDS and genetics was something I was always really interested in. This was a further interest, in terms of genetics, for me to look at and think about how that could help us diagnose people.”  

Camille’s family noticed something was wrong as soon as she was born: Camille was born with her hips dislocated. She also fell a lot as a child and was prone to injuries because EDS can make people less stable. She found out she had EDS when she went to see an orthopedic surgeon for scoliosis, which her family learned was caused by her EDS. 

She lives with pain from the condition. Her level of pain varies in intensity from day to day, sometimes making her feel like she has the flu. 

A photo of a woman in a white lab coat.
Camille Schrier learned she had Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome at age 11.

“It’s not like shooting, burning or electric pain. It’s kind of a dull chronic achiness that I get frequently,” she says. “It … rarely interferes with my everyday life. But it’s definitely a reminder that it’s there.”

EDS affects about 1 in 5,000 people. There are 13 different types, classified based on the symptoms and signs that patients show. Common symptoms include loose and unstable joints that can lead to frequent dislocations, joint pain, fragile skin that can bruise easily, and poor wound healing. EDS can cause early onset osteoarthritis, scoliosis, musculoskeletal pain, arterial/intestinal/uterine fragility or rupture, poor muscle tone and gum disease.

Camille has classic EDS, which affects the genes in her type V collagen. Symptoms include joint hypermobility, skin hyperextensibility and skin fragility that leads to scarring and bruising.

It is a genetic condition. Camille and her mother, Cheryl Schrier, were both diagnosed at the same time. Cheryl Schrier says she would get injured frequently as a teenager but was consistently blown off as being “overdramatic.” 

“Camille was experiencing some of the same [experiences I had],” Cheryl says. “Her swim coach told her she was ‘trying to get out of the hard work’ when her shoulder dislocated repeatedly during backstroke practices, and field hockey coaches told her to ‘walk off’ ankle subluxations and hand injuries.” 

The Schriers’ experience rings true for Tahnee N. Causey, a genetic counselor and assistant director of the VCU Genetic Counseling Program who has worked with many patients with EDS.

Friends, co-workers and even physicians often do not understand a disorder like EDS that has few visible signs but that can cause real injury and pain, Causey says. Common symptoms of EDS include migraine, joint pain, gastrointestinal distress, poor wound healing and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS, a circulatory condition in which people become lightheaded and dizzy when they stand up.

It is not unusual for EDS patients to struggle for a long time to convince doctors that their symptoms are real, Causey adds: “For some of our patients it’s a real validation that they have a diagnosis.”

Causey, who says her office evaluates about 10 patients a week who show signs that may mean they have the disorder, suspects it is more common than even many experts think.

Starting in September 2019, VCU Health is beginning a twice-monthly clinic with practitioners from different medical disciplines to help treat patients with EDS.

Camille Schrier says she hopes that speaking about her condition helps people, particularly healthcare professionals and pharmacy students, understand that EDS is “wildly misdiagnosed” and more common than people realize since there are many different strains of the disorder. 

“I have something that causes me pain constantly and causes me injury and chronic fatigue sometimes,” she says. “That’s something I deal with, and there are many other people that have illnesses that are not obvious.” 

Camille has taken a one-year leave of absence from her Pharm.D. studies. She is currently travelling the state, sharing her STEM platform as Miss Virginia. She will compete in the Miss America pageant in September. 

To learn more about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome visit

Note: This article was edited on Aug. 8, 2019, to add information from an interview with Tahnee Causey.

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