Category: Faculty and staff news

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.

VCU team explores epigenetics as cause of adverse drug reactions in elderly

A photo of an old person's hand with a hospital wrist band being held by a younger person's hand.
Older patients are almost seven times as likely to be hospitalized for drug reactions than younger ones. Researchers from VCU’s pharmacy and medical schools are examining the role of epigenetics.

Greg Weatherford
Director of Communications
VCU School of Pharmacy

A VCU School of Pharmacy research team is studying how aging affects the ways drugs interact with the body. The results may help doctors better manage medications in older patients. 

The aim is to better understand why older people seem to metabolize drugs more slowly, with the goal of someday seeing fewer adverse drug reactions and hospitalizations among the elderly, said the principal investigator, Joseph McClay, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the VCU School of Pharmacy’s Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science. 

Older patients are almost seven times as likely to be hospitalized for adverse drug reactions than younger ones, according to a 2006 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. A separate study in the United Kingdom found that adverse drug reactions contributed to 6.5% of hospital admissions and primarily occurred in older patients.

The causes for these disparities are not well known, McClay said. 

The study, supported by a $454,000 grant from the National Institute on Aging, will explore how genetic factors that are turned on and off by the body — a process known as epigenetics — affect how the body interacts with medications as it ages. 

The body’s genes, its DNA, do not change over time. But its epigenetics, how the body expresses those genes, does. The VCU team will begin the process of tracking how these epigenetic changes affect the body’s reaction to drugs. 

McClay and his colleagues — Elvin Price, Pharm.D./Ph.D., and Matthew Halquist, Ph.D., in the VCU School of Pharmacy and Mikhail Dozmorov, Ph.D., and Patrick Beardsley, Ph.D., in the VCU School of Medicine — and a team of graduate students will begin by mapping age-related changes in key genes using samples of livers from aged mice from the National Institute on Aging. 

This map of epigenetic changes, McClay said, will help researchers understand how the liver, the body’s main organ for metabolizing drugs and other outside chemicals, could interact with medicines in older bodies. 

Once the mapping is complete, the team plans to focus on a gene known as CYP2E1, which is part of the liver’s system of metabolizing chemicals such as drugs and alcohol and has been shown by the VCU team and others to be expressed differently in older bodies. 

In particular, the VCU researchers will study how chlorzoxazone, a drug metabolized by CYP2E1, is affected. If livers from older mice metabolize the drug more slowly, as McClay and his team predict, this could lead to greater understanding of the reasons that older humans are affected differently by medications. and iIn time this could lead to better medication dosing in elderly patients.

“That is the point, in the end,” McClay said. “We want to keep people healthy.” 

Price named Yanchick professor and director of geriatric pharmacotherapy

Elvin T. Price, Pharm.D./Ph.D., has been named Victor A. Yanchick professor and director of the Geriatric Pharmacotherapy Program at VCU School of Pharmacy. He takes over the roles from longtime professor Patricia Slattum, who retired earlier this year. 

Photo of a man wearing a bowtie and gray suit.

The Yanchick professorship is named for Victor A. Yanchick, dean of the School of Pharmacy from 1996 to 2014, and has the goal of providing sustained leadership for the geriatrics program.  

“We are thrilled that Dr. Price has agreed to take on this role and lead the Geriatric Pharmacotherapy Program,” said Joseph T. DiPiro, Archie O. McCalley chair and dean of the School of Pharmacy. “His experience and dedication to improving health among older patients will guide the program into the future of geriatric medicine.”  

Price joined VCU School of Pharmacy in 2017 from University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in the College of Pharmacy, where he was an assistant professor, as an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science. He also is affiliated with VCU’s Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation (iCubed), focusing on health and wellness in aging populations. 

“Older adults have a special place in my heart,” Price said. “As a child I witnessed several of my older relatives live with, and die from, diabetes and heart diseases. This suffering inspired me to pursue a career studying the impact of genetic variation on aging and how people respond to medications.” 

Price earned his doctorate in pharmacy from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and his Ph.D. in clinical pharmaceutical sciences and pharmacogenomics from the University of Florida. His published research has focused largely on pharmacogenomics and personalized medicine, as well as on health issues such as diabetes and substance abuse.

Auxiliary Label: Antibiotic stewardship research in a community outpatient setting

An image of a purple C. dificile bacterium.
An image of C. dificile bacterium, based on photomicrographic data. (Centers for Disease Control).

By Victoria Hammond
Auxiliary Label Staff

Antibiotic resistance — when bacteria are untreatable by current antibiotics — is a growing public health concern.

To reduce antibiotic resistance, prescribers use antibiotics only when necessary. In hospital settings, experts called antibiotic stewards monitor trends in resistance, prescribing, costs and adverse effects. Prescribing trends are compared to current treatment guidelines.

Stewards in an antibiotic stewardship have a goal to “enhance patient health outcomes, reducing resistance to antibiotics, and decreasing unnecessary costs,” according to the Society of Healthcare Epidemiology of America.

In 2015, about  269 million antibiotic prescriptions were dispensed in outpatient settings — at least 30 percent of which were unnecessary, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Unnecessary treatment of antibiotics can increase the risk of side effects or opportunistic infections such as C. difficile.

Settings with high volumes of antibiotics being prescribed would benefit from an antibiotic stewardship program to prevent side effects and opportunistic infection.

To improve patient outcomes in outpatient settings, VCU School of Pharmacy faculty members John Bucheit, Pharm.D.,  Teresa Salgado, M.Pharm., Ph.D., and Amy Pakyz, Pharm.D., Ph.D., have been implementing an antibiotic stewardship program in a free outpatient health clinic in the Richmond area. (They asked that the clinic’s name not be published.)

The faculty members’ first focus targets the prescribing trends of uncomplicated urinary-tract infections, or UTIs. Bucheit, Pakyz and Salgado are developing an antibiogram — a profile of antibiotic susceptibility for a specific practice site — based on prescribing trends from the past two years.

The antibiogram will provide information about which antibiotics are providing beneficial therapy to patients based on the clinic’s antibiotic susceptibility to resistant or nonresistant bacteria. This antibiogram will then be compared with current therapy guidelines to develop clinic specific guidelines for practitioners to use at the clinic. The project was made possible by a grant from the VCU School of Pharmacy’s Center for Pharmacy Practice Innovation.

“We are excited about this project to not only improve patient care at our clinic,” Bucheit said, “but also to provide an example for other outpatient offices interested in improving antibiotic prescribing for uncomplicated UTI.”

After the guideline is developed, Bucheit, Pakyz, Salgado and their team will educate the staff and reevaluate in a year.

The goal of this project is to provide prescriber education and improve patient health outcomes in a setting where high volumes of antibiotics are prescribed.

Auxiliary Label is a student-created blog examining pharmacy life, education and research at the VCU School of Pharmacy from a student perspective. It is overseen by Greg Weatherford, the school’s director of communications. Contact him here.


VCU receives $2.7M to study use of anti-inflammatory medicine for treatment of heart failure

A man stands smiling in front of a large window. His arms are crossed.
Ben Van Tassell, Pharm.D., is researching the role a common medication might play in relieving symptoms of heart failure.

Hearts that are failing become inflamed and swollen — doctors have known that for years.

But researchers at VCU Pharmacy and VCU Health wondered what would happen to people with failing hearts if they treated the inflammation as a cause of the illness rather than a symptom. Would the patients feel better?

Initial studies seemed to say yes. The results were convincing enough that the National Institutes of Health took the unusual step of funding a larger study directly through a $2.7 million grant over five years.

The grant will fund a clinical trial with 102 heart-disease patients. Researchers will investigate if reducing inflammation in the heart muscle can improve the patients’ health and reduce the need for hospitalization. Researchers expect to begin enrolling patients later this year. (More about this trial and enrollment criteria.)

It is the fourth NIH grant for the research team that is co-led by Benjamin Van Tassell, Pharm.D., vice chair for clinical research and associate professor in the VCU School of Pharmacy Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science, and Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., vice chair of the Division of Cardiology in the VCU School of Medicine. The current study will build on encouraging results from a smaller 2016 study also funded by the NIH.

The researchers are investigating the possibility that inflammation could be a major cause of heart failure, rather than simply a symptom of the condition.

“The heart is a muscle,” Van Tassell said. Like other muscles, when inflamed it becomes swollen and difficult to move. Swelling could have major effects on the heart’s ability to pump blood and could result in heart failure and death.

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The condition is difficult to treat and expensive to manage. Nearly 1 in 4 people hospitalized for heart failure return to the hospital within 30 days of leaving, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Risk Management and Healthcare Policy.

Earlier efforts by scientists to connect heart problems to inflammation have shown inconsistent results, possibly from focusing on the wrong types of inflammation, Van Tassell said. In the past few years, however, Abbate and Van Tassell have led multiple clinical trials using a drug originally developed to treat rheumatoid arthritis to target a specific type of inflammation that is driven by a protein called Interleukin-1.

In the VCU researchers’ 2016 study of 60 heart-failure patients with a recent hospitalization, those who received treatment achieved lower levels of inflammation and were able to exercise longer than patients who did not receive treatment. In the course of six months, only one patient receiving long-term anti-inflammatory treatment went back to the hospital. Nearly one-third of the patients who did not receive the anti-inflammatory treatment were hospitalized in the same period.

Last year, a large-scale study from the pharmaceutical company Novartis used a similar drug to reduce inflammation. The Novartis research found the number of heart attacks was cut by about 15 percent. The VCU study will examine if a similar approach can help people with heart failure.


Promotions for School of Pharmacy faculty

Congratulations to the following faculty members on their promotions, effective July 1st, 2018. The promotions were approved by the VCU Board of Visitors at its most recent meeting.

Dr. Karolina Aberg has been promoted to associate professor in the Department of Pharmaceutics.
Dr. Krista Donohoe has been promoted to associate professor in the Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science.
Dr. Keith Ellis has been promoted to associate professor in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry. He has also been awarded tenure.
Dr. Emily Peron has been promoted to associate professor in the Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science.
Dr. Masahiro Sakagami has been promoted to professor with tenure in the Department of Pharmaceutics.

Introducing the school’s new development director, Louie Correa

We are pleased that Louie A. Correa is joining us in June as the the school’s senior director of development. He first joined VCU in 2015 as associate director of development for VCUArts. Learn more about him in this Q&A.

Thanks for agreeing to do this! Let’s start with the big picture. What draws you to development as a career? 

CORREA: I started in nonprofit management and like most development professionals stumbled into this field. I quickly fell in love with being able to visit with supporters and connect them to the causes they are passionate about. I enjoy hearing about their interests and strategizing to find the place where their interests best serve the institution.

What personal values do you draw on in your life and work? And how do you see those values fitting with those of VCU and the School of Pharmacy?

CORREA: I have a passion for higher education and our students. These are transformative years in their lives and we get to be a part of setting them on a course for future success. I want to do all I can to ensure cost isn’t a barrier to a great education and I want to ensure cost isn’t a barrier for the School of Pharmacy to have the very best faculty and programs. I love the grit I have seen from VCU students. They are often nontraditional, hard-working, self-made type people and I aim to be just as gritty in working to ensure they have the resources they need to receive a great education!

What should people know about your background and what brought you here?

CORREA: I am a Midwesterner, but married a Richmond woman in 2010. We moved here to be closer to family when we decided we wanted to start a family of our own. We have a 2-year-old daughter, Madison, and an 11-year-old puggle named Rex. I got to know a lot of pharmaceutical companies through my work as CEO of The Brandon Marshall Foundation (now called Project 375) where we worked toward promoting positive mental health and de-stigmatizing mental illness. In my spare time (which is confined to my daughter’s sleeping hours) I enjoy exercising, television/film (specifically documentaries), and sports.

Tell us something people might not know about you on the first meeting. 

CORREA: I have a robust catalog of dad jokes!

Louie Correa

Title: Senior Director of Development
Preferred Name: Louie
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
Favorite Sport/team/hobby: VCU Rams basketball!
Family members: Erin (owns her own executive coaching practice), Madison (2), Rex (dog, 11)


Augmented reality can revolutionize surgery and data visualization, say VCU researchers

A graduate student at V-C-U gestures toward the 3-dimensional image of the model of a molecule that is projected in a classroom.
View through the eyes of a student wearing a Microsoft HoloLens AR platform to utilize software developed in the lab of Shanaka “Dayanjan” Wijesinghe. The technology has research and medical applications.

By Leah Small

The practical uses for augmented reality — which superimposes digital information onto real world surroundings — seem endless. Technologists have envisioned futuristic applications such as glasses that allow wearers to visualize turn-by-turn navigation in real time and immersive gaming headsets. Recently, scientists have focused on harnessing the technology for intellectual pursuits.

Virginia Commonwealth University researchers are leading utilization of AR for medical and research purposes. An interdisciplinary team of faculty and students led by Dayanjan “Shanaka” Wijesinghe Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Sciences in the School of Pharmacy, is developing augmented reality platforms that could improve surgical approaches, refine personalized medicine and serve as a research tool.

The Med-AR program, which is optimized for the Microsoft HoloLens AR platform, renders 3-D models of CT and MRI scans, and allows users to interact digitally. In February, VCU Medical Center surgeons used the application to prepare for two complex cardiac surgeries. Another version of the program is frequently employed to create 3-D models of complex biochemical networks for scientific research.

“Our technology has the capability to democratize medicine across the globe,” Wijesinghe said. “The 3-D surgical and biochemical network models can be shared worldwide for collaborative planning of complex surgeries and research.”

The image of a patient's torso bones and circulatory system floats superimposed on a real office.
Augmented reality shows a cardiovascular system from a real patient as if it were floating in the air. Different structures such as bones and organs can be made invisible or visible with voice or hand controls.

The operating room

In many respects, the AR application surpasses detailed 2-D medical imaging in its ability to offer surgeons realistic presentations of anatomy, said Dan Tang, M.D., the Richard R. Lower professor in cardiovascular surgery in the VCU School of Medicine.

Tang is the surgical director of heart transplantation and mechanical circulatory support. He and his team recently donned headsets to prepare for two surgeries, one to mend a central portion of the heart and the other to repair leaks around two artificial valves.

The surgeons used 3-D reconstructions of CT scans generated by Med-AR to view areas of concern in the way they would appear on the operating table. Programmed verbal commands allowed the surgeons to rotate the models, move them and cause some parts to go transparent to view hidden anatomy.

“It really gives you a sense of where structures lie in relation to other structures while planning operations,” Tang said. “It’s particularly helpful for trainees who are still learning to translate the preoperative screen imaging to the live intraoperative findings.”

Tang expects the technology to improve alongside that of medical imaging and AR hardware.

“Augmented reality represents a leap forward,” Tang said. “When physicians went from plain film X-rays to digitized CT scans, we were provided with more detailed images.”

The majority of this information is still displayed in 2-D slices, and 3-D reconstructions of the images require further development. However, the VCU teams’ interactive, 3-D models present an intuitive imaging platform that surgeons can use to plan operations, and as a tool to educate patients on their disease process.

Wijesinghe envisions more ambitious surgical applications for the technology. His lab is working to develop an experience that is shared in real time between users during surgery and remote users, with the option of video and voice recording. Eventually, he aims to expand the software to overlie scaled 1-to-1 images on top of the operative field to provide supplemental information in real time.

“Being able to overlay the 3-D virtual reconstruction on the patient is akin to providing something like X-ray vision to the surgeons,” Wijesinghe said. “They will be able to see the patient, but also the structure underneath that they need to reach during the operation.”

Wijesinghe and Tang also collaborated with Vig Kasirajan, M.D., the Stuart McGuire professor and VCU Department of Surgery chair; Alex Valadka, M.D., professor and VCU Department of Neurosurgery chair; and the VCU da Vinci Center to perfect the technology. 

Rendering biochemical networks

The research initiative stemmed from the need to understand biochemical pathways and interactions. This helps scientists explain and predict cellular functions that impact biological mechanisms such as disease progression and metabolism.

Biochemical networks, which are graphs scientists use to visualize biochemical interactions, provide the key to understanding biochemical pathways.

Data points called nodes represent molecules such as enzymes or metabolites. Lines drawn between the nodes define how the molecules interact.

Biochemical networks allow scientists to see the bigger picture but they take up an enormous amount of space when displayed in 2-D, which makes AR’s 3-D capabilities convenient.

“The issue we were running into is that complete biochemical networks are extremely complex, so no matter how much they are magnified, we cannot even display the data on multiple screens,” Wijesinghe said. “We needed a different technology and it made sense to generate immersive biochemical networks that are not limited to screen space.”

The system has some similarities to existing technologies, Wijesinghe said, but costs much less and is much more portable.

Wijesinghe’s next steps are to apply the AR technology’s biochemical network visualization capabilities to personalized medicine. The goal would be to visualize the effect of drug interactions on biological mechanisms within a patient profile.

For example, a scientist could use the technology to visualize a drug’s ability to improve an individual’s metabolism. Biological indices would be obtained from the patient to create the biochemical network, and drug molecules and metabolites would be represented by nodes. Scientists would use various visual aids, such as affected nodes going dark, to predict drug interactions.

“We solved the problem of visualizing networks,” Wijesinghe said. “Now, what we are working on is visualizing how specific drugs can impact an entire network.”

Read this story at VCU News. 

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