Eighteen Virginia Commonwealth University researchers have been awarded grants from the Presidential Research Quest Fund this year, including three from the VCU School of Medicine: Jason Carlyon, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology; Sammanda Ramamoorthy, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology; and Ekaterina Smirnova, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Biostatistics. These projects encompass a diverse range of research areas within medicine, and all three aim to close knowledge gaps to reduce health disparities and improve patient outcomes. 

Top to bottom: Jason Carlyon, Ph.D.; Sammanda Ramamoorthy, Ph.D.; Ekaterina Smirnova, Ph.D.

Carlyon’s lab is one of just a few in the world to study the molecular mechanisms that allow the bacterium Orienta tsutsugamushi to cause scrub typhus, a potentially fatal infection that afflicts about one million people per year in the Asia-Pacific region and in recent years has occurred in other parts of the world. Led by Carlyon, the study “Development of a System for Genetically Manipulating the Obligate Intracellular Pathogen Orientia Tsutsugamushi” aims to pioneer the genetic tools that will allow investigators to understand the function of Orienta tsutsugamushi genes, thus leading to insights for new interventions to prevent and treat scrub typhus.

Ramamoorthy's project will examine addiction on the cellular and neurochemical level in an effort to find an effective medication for cocaine use disorder. Current strategies to treat cocaine addiction rely heavily on psycho-behavioral therapy, and Ramamoorthy’s study, “Novel Therapeutic Targets for Developing Effective Pharmacotherapeutics to Treat Cocaine Addiction,” will address an unmet need to better understand neurobiological targets that have links to cocaine use disorder.

Smirnova plans to develop computational models for preterm birth prediction based on changes in microbial composition throughout pregnancy. Preterm birth affected one of every 10 infants in the U.S. in 2019, and rates among Black women are about 50% higher than among white or Hispanic women. Smirnova’s study, “Methods for Integrating Longitudinal Multi-Omics Data with Application to Preterm Birth Prediction,” aims to address this health disparity by identifying individuals at higher risk of spontaneous labor early in pregnancy to allow for early interventions that decrease the rate of premature birth. 

“This year’s Presidential Quest Fund recipients represent our School of Medicine’s ongoing commitment to improving quality and equity in health care through cutting-edge investigations,” said Peter Buckley, M.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine. “The projects being undertaken by Dr. Carlyon, Dr. Ramamoorthy and Dr. Smirnova have the potential to make a real difference in the lives of patients and our community. We look forward to seeing how their work continues to develop with the support of this highly competitive internal funding program.”

Since its founding in 2014, the Presidential Research Quest Fund, now supported by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation, has awarded grants for more than 100 projects across VCU's broad spectrum of schools, departments and specialties. Recipients have made more than 241 presentations and published more than 200 peer-reviewed papers, and at least five patents have been filed from past research projects. According to the most recent data, the financial return on VCU’s $4.5 million Presidential Research Quest Fund investment has garnered over $25.3 million in state, federal, private and industry funding in the academic years 2016–21.

Each project must align with the university’s Quest 2025: Together We Transform and the initiatives of the newly launched One VCU Strategic Research Priorities Plan, which seeks to engage the VCU community by creating a culture of collaboration and inspiring researchers to improve and enhance the human condition. 

“I am so pleased with the exceptional potential of the research projects the [Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation] awarded through the 2021 Presidential Quest Fund,” said Srirama Rao, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation and chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. “The research that comes out of this program is often groundbreaking, and this time around we have aligned the process with the aims of our strategic research priorities plan. Through this coordinated effort, VCU can continue to expand its reach and amplify its impact as a premier, urban, research university.”

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