Highlights and News

MSTP Jim Cronk wins 2016 Michael Peach Award

Please join us in congratulating Jim Cronk (Kipnis lab) who won the prestigious Michael J. Peach Award.  Jim, Janelle Weaver (Outstanding Student, Pharmacology) and Sam M. Rosenfeld (Outstanding Student, Pathology/MCBD) all gave terrific oral presentations that were extremely well received at the 24th Annual GBS Symposium, Monday March 21st.

We couldn’t be prouder!

Congratulations! MSTP Med 4s Match Day, March 18th

Please join us in congratulating three outstanding MSTPs who matched at Chicago, UCSD, and Johns Hopkins in Internal Medicine, Ophthalmology, and Neurology. We wish them the very best! To view our full Match List, click here! To view a great video of the Match Day experience, click here!


MSTP Annual Student/Alumni Presentations: April 15

The MSTP is honored to host Oliver McDonald, MD, PhD as this year’s Alumni speaker. Dr. McDonald is an Assistant Professor of Pathology at Vanderbilt and a graduate of Dr. Gary Owens’ lab. Our student speaker will be Sowmya Narayanan, Grad 4, Hahn Lab. Sowmya will defend this summer and return to medical school. Congratulations!

U.Va. Acquires High-End Bioprinters for Tissue, Organ Fabrication

The University of Virginia has acquired two new state-of-the-art three-dimensional bioprinters and has begun training lab scientists and bioengineers to “print” tissues that could eventually be used to treat patients with illnesses and injuries ranging from burns to diabetes, and heart, liver and kidney failure.

The two bioprinters, manufactured by a leading 3-D bioprinting company, regenHU of Switzerland, are among only four such top-of-the-line machines now in use in the United States. The other two are at medical centers in Boston and Miami.

The printers enable bioengineers to “print” or “draw out” living cells, such as skin or bone or other cell types, onto a substrate, building tissue structure layer by layer, resulting in a custom-designed bit of living material that potentially could be implanted or grafted onto a patient to repair or replace damaged tissue.
The ultimate goal is to eventually fabricate full artificial organs and circumvent the current problem of donor organ shortages.
Shayn_Peirce-Cottler_05HR_DA“In the long run, we hope to develop alternatives to the use of human organs for transplantation,” said Dr. Kenneth Brayman, a transplant surgeon and researcher at the U.Va. School of Medicine who is focusing on the printing of bits of organs and tissues for treating diabetes. “The bioprinter is a tool that can help develop new horizons to address and treat human diseases. The potential for cell therapies is quite high.”
Presently there are numerous applications for 3-D bioprinting, everything from printing skin for burn patients; to printing precisely shaped pieces of collagen, cartilage or muscle for cleft palate repair; to fabricating certain tubular-shaped parts, such as a trachea or a short length of artery. U.Va.’s immediate focus is on printing bits of pancreas for treating diabetes, and bits of skin and muscle for reconstructive surgeries.
“This new capability will in the near term benefit patients being treated at the U.Va. Health System by influencing how doctors think about existing surgical procedures, and in the long term by providing entirely new treatment options for organ transplantation and surgical reconstruction of tissues,” said bioengineering Professor Shayn Peirce-Cottler, whose research program focuses on how blood vessels grow into new and regenerating tissues.
She acquired the two bioprinters – one for her lab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and the other for use in Brayman’s lab – with funding primarily from the Office of the Vice President for Research, and additional funding from the School of Engineering and Applied Science. The total cost was $300,000.
Currently, Peirce-Cottler said, the main hindrance to printing complex replacement tissues is the difficulty of providing a sufficient blood supply to the tissue.
“The major design challenge is in printing blood vessels, particularly very small capillaries, which are essential for providing oxygen and nutrients to cells,” Peirce-Cottler said. “The new printers provide a precise level of control in how we can design tissue samples using stem cells. We expect to be able to draw microscopic-sized capillaries into the tissue as we lay out cells.”
Peirce-Cottler noted that the new machines will synergize interdisciplinary research teams consisting of surgeons, engineers and biologists working to implement and test new strategies for designing, growing and regenerating tissue.
“U.Va. has substantial depth of expertise in all of the key areas that are necessary for successfully printing tissues and eventually organs,” she said. “We have collaborative surgeons, such as Dr. Brayman, with exceptional expertise transplanting tissues and organs. We have bioengineers with strong understanding of physiology and anatomy, and our team includes scientists who are successful at developing new therapies to promote tissue growth and regeneration. Plus we have a strong culture of cross- and multi-disciplinary collaboration in close proximity.”
Brayman added, “The presence of the bioprinters in the transplantation and bioengineering laboratories will enable our students and faculty to remain on the cutting edge of such research and enable us to compete for grants and the best and brightest students.”
While bioprinting is cutting-edge technology, it may be some years before the printing of complex organs is possible, Peirce-Cottler cautioned.
“We have to start simple, learn as we go, and then move on to more complicated tissues and organs,” she said. “I think that being able to print an entire multi-structural organ, like a liver, heart or kidney, is probably a long way off, but being able to print smaller, functional, clinically useful pieces of organs or tissues is an obtainable goal in the next few years.”



Nearly Indestructible Virus Yields Tool to Battle Diseases

Egelman with TitanMAY 26, 2015

By unlocking the secrets of a bizarre virus that survives in nearly boiling acid, scientists at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have found a blueprint for battling human disease using DNA clad in near-indestructible armor.

“What’s interesting and unusual is being able to see how proteins and DNA can be put together in a way that’s absolutely stable under the harshest conditions imaginable,” said Edward H. Egelman of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics. “We’ve discovered what appears to be a basic mechanism of resistance – to heat, to desiccation, to ultraviolet radiation. And knowing that, then, we can go in many different directions, including developing ways to package DNA for gene therapy.”

Finding effective packaging for DNA delivery is important because the human body has many ways to degrade and remove foreign DNA; that’s how it combats harmful viruses. But that protective mechanism becomes a major obstacle for doctors seeking to use genes to battle disease. Creating an impenetrable packaging would overcome that problem, and this strange virus offers a promising template.

The virus, SIRV2, infects a microscopic organism known as Sulfolobus islandicus that lives in what Egelman described as “extremely unusual” conditions: acidic hot springs where temperatures top 175 degrees Fahrenheit. The research identified surprising similarities between the SIRV2 virus and the spores bacteria form to survive in inhospitable environments.

“Some of these spores are responsible for very, very horrific diseases that are hard to treat, like anthrax,” Egeleman said. “So we show in this paper that this virus actually functions in a similar way to some of the proteins present in bacterial spores.”

Spores are also formed by C. difficile, which now accounts for approximately 30,000 deaths per year in the U.S. and has been classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having a threat level of “urgent.”

“Understanding how these bacterial spores work gives us potentially new abilities to destroy them,” Egelman said. “Having this basic scientific research leads in many, many directions, most of which are impossible to predict, in terms of what the implications are going to be.”

So how does the virus survive such inhospitable conditions? SIRV2, it turns out, forces its DNA into what is called A-form, a structural state identified by pioneering DNA researcher Rosalind Franklin more than a half-century ago.

“This is, I think, going to highlight once again the contributions she made, because many people have felt that this A-form of DNA is only found in the laboratory under very non-biological conditions, when DNA is dehydrated or dry,” Egelman said. “Instead, it appears to be a general mechanism in biology for protecting DNA.”

Egelman and his colleagues were able to crack the mystery only because of the remarkable power of U.Va.’s new Titan Krios electron microscope. Buried deep below Fontaine Research Park, the massive microscope is insulated within many tons of concrete to provide the stability needed to examine biological samples in previously impossible detail. The microscope is one of only a few of its kind in the world, and was funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health. Researchers from far and wide, both at U.Va. and beyond, are tapping its power.

Egelman’s findings are among the first to result from U.Va.’s Titan, but others are expected to follow soon.

The discovery has been described in the prestigious scientific journal Science (subscriber access only) in an article whose authors are Frank DiMaio, Xiong Yu, Elena Rensen, Mart Krupovic, David Prangishvili and Egelman.

Josh Barney

U.Va. Health System




U.Va. Finds Trigger for Protective Immune Response to Spinal Cord Injuries

Gadani2015Hot on the heels of discovering a protective form of immune response to spinal cord injury, researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have pinpointed the biological trigger for that response – a vital step toward being able to harness the body’s defenses to improve treatment for spine injuries, brain trauma, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions.

The trigger for the immune response, the molecule interleukin-33, is concentrated in what is known as “white matter” in the healthy brain and spinal cord. Interleukin-33, the researchers have discovered, is released upon injury and activates cells called glia, beginning the body’s protective response and promoting recovery.

“It’s the first thing that tells the immune system that something’s been damaged,” said U.Va.’s Sachin Gadani, the lead author of a new paper outlining the discovery. “It’s how the immune system initially knows to respond.”

The researchers aren’t sure if interleukin-33 has other roles to play in addition to its role in injury response. “Interleukin-33 must be important to the central nervous system. It is expressed all the time – even in the healthy state – and we’ve only described its activity after injury,” said Jonathan Kipnis, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience and director of the Center for Brain Immunology and Glia. “From an evolutionary perspective it makes little sense. The system produces this constantly just in case of injury that may never come? I’d be surprised if there was no function beyond injury. IL-33 may represent a language through which [the central nervous system] is constantly talking with the immune system – or, in other words, a molecular mind-body connection.”

Kipnis noted that problems with interleukin-33 could contribute to poor outcomes after spine or brain injuries. “It’s possible that if there’s some problem with this molecule in patients, they will have poor alarm signaling, and they will have very poor outcomes,” he said.

The discovery also sheds light on previous findings connecting interleukin-33 to Alzheimer’s disease.

“There’s a huge link,” Gadani said. “Researchers have identified a strong connection between interleukin-33 and Alzheimer’s disease, and our work will pave the way for future studies on this topic.”

Eventually, the findings could lead to both improved treatments and new diagnostic tests for brain and spinal cord injury, Alzheimer’s and other conditions.

Kipnis saluted Gadani for his contributions to the work – contributions all the more impressive considering that Gadani is still a graduate student in U.Va.’s Medical Scientist Training Program.

“He came in with this idea, and from the initial idea to the final paper, he drove the research. And he’s only in his third year of graduate school,” Kipnis said. “Credit goes to our MST program that it is able to recruit such a high caliber of students.”

The findings have been published online by Neuron, a premier neuroscience journal for peer-reviewed research. The article’s authors are Gadani, James T. Walsh, Igor Smirnov, Jingjing Zheng and Kipnis.

Josh Barney
U.Va. Health System

Major Discovery on Spinal Injury Reveals Unknown Immune Response

Jamie Walsh, MSTP Student

Jamie Walsh, MSTP Student

In a discovery that could dramatically affect the treatment of brain and spinal cord injuries, researchers at the University of Virginia and elsewhere have identified a previously unknown, beneficial immune response that occurs after injury to the central nervous system. By harnessing this response, doctors may be able to develop new and better treatments for brain and spinal cord injuries, develop tools to predict how patients will respond to treatment, and better treat degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The newly discovered immune response occurs independently of the process that typically goads the immune system into action. In that process, the body identifies and attacks substances known as antigens, such as bacteria and viruses.

“What we have shown is that the injured central nervous system talks to the immune system in a language that hasn’t been previously recognized in this context,” said Jonathan Kipnis, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience at U.Va.’s School of Medicine and director of the Center for Brain Immunology and Glia. “It sends ‘danger signals’ and activates the immune system very rapidly. These danger signals cause immune cells to produce a molecule called interleukin 4, which happens to be indispensable for immune-mediated neuroprotection after [central nervous system] trauma.”

Interleukin 4 helps protect the body’s neurons (nerve cells) and promote their regeneration, whereas uncontrolled inflammation can destroy them. As such, understanding how the body responds to damage to the central nervous system is critically important.

“Once [central nervous system] neurons die, they’re gone for life. They don’t come back. So I think the CNS has evolved along with the immune system to respond in this protective fashion,” explained U.Va.’s James T. Walsh, lead author of the paper outlining the discovery. “[The immune system in the CNS] has to be very metered with how it responds. It can’t attack everything like it does in a lot of other tissues, because it causes a lot of collateral damage. You really need the right kind of response in the CNS. It can be a double-edged sword. The immune system can cause damage to the CNS, but it can also be beneficial, and we’re showing here how it’s beneficial.”

Currently there are no effective treatments to promote neuronal survival and regeneration after central nervous system injury. Treatments for spinal injuries historically relied on immune suppression to prevent the collateral damage that results from the immune response, but growing evidence has shown that approach to be ineffective. The new findings suggest that doctors may instead want to increase the interleukin 4 response, to boost the protection it provides. They also may be able to determine how well a patient will respond to treatment by developing a test to detect the number of interleukin 4-producing cells present.

The discovery was the result of a collaboration between researchers in the U.S. and Germany. Their findings have been published online by the Journal of Clinical Investigation. The article’s authors are Walsh, Sven Hendrix, Francesco Boato, Igor Smirnov, Jingjing Zheng, John R. Lukens, Sachin Gadani, Daniel Hechler, Greta Gölz, Karen Rosenberger, Thomas Kammertöns, Johannes Vogt, Christine Vogelaar, Volker Siffrin, Ali Radjavi, Anthony Fernandez-Castaneda, Alban Gaultier, Ralf Gold, Thirumala-Devi Kanneganti, Robert Nitsch, Frauke Zipp and Kipnis.

Sarah Kucenas Named Outstanding Faculty

Biology professor Sarah Kucenas, PhD received the state’s highest honor for professors, the Outstanding Faculty Award.

Kucenas recieved the award with another UVA professor, Stephen Cushman of the English Department. The awards, given by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and Dominion Resources, recognize superior accomplishments in teaching, research and public service.

Kucenas and Cushman are among 13 faculty members selected this year from a pool of 88 nominees from institutions statewide. They join 34 previous winners from U.Va. and one fromU.Va.’s College at Wise since the awards were first presented 29 years ago.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe will honor Cushman, Kucenas and their fellow awardees during a Feb. 19 ceremony at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond. Each will receive $5,000 and a commemorative engraved award, underwritten by the Dominion Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Dominion Resources.

“With Dominion’s support, the annual recognition of Virginia’s outstanding faculty members is truly one of the agency’s most rewarding activities,” SCHEV Director Peter Blake said. “We are honored to highlight the accomplishments of these professors who lend their extraordinary talents to their students, their institutions and the commonwealth of Virginia.”

Awardees are nominated by their peers at Virginia’s public and private colleges and universities. A selection committee, made up of members of SCHEV and education, business and community leaders, chose the 13 winners.

“Professors Cushman and Kucenas are wonderful examples of faculty who commit to outstanding teaching, scholarship, research and service to our University, its students and the citizens of the commonwealth,” said U.Va. Executive Vice President and Provost John D. Simon. “The commonwealth’s highest honor is well deserved by both of these professors for their ongoing dedication.”

Stephen Cushman

Cushman, Robert C. Taylor Professor of English in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, specializes in American poetry. He publishes his own poetry and delves into historical research combining literature and the Civil War.

Two books of his were published in October: “Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War,” from the University of North Carolina Press; and “The Red List,” from the Louisiana State University Press, his fifth book of poetry. He was the general editor of the “Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics,” published in 2012.

Since 2003, Cushman and U.Va. history professor Gary Gallagher have team-taught an upper-level undergraduate course, “Voices of the Civil War.” This year, both hold the Cavaliers’ Distinguished Teaching Professorship, a two-year chair that recognizes eminent scholars for excellence in teaching, administered by the Teaching Resource Center.

For 16 years, Cushman has taught one of the three survey courses required of English majors. He estimates that he and co-instructor Michael Levenson have taught 4,400 students in that class alone.

“The consensus of faculty and students year after year is overwhelmingly consistent,” writes Cynthia Wall, who chairs the English department. “Stephen Cushman’s teaching changes lives and lasts lifetimes. He is what we all want to be: intellectually rigorous, philosophically challenging, deft in directing discussion, and memorably effective teaching writing, close reading and argument. (Oh, and hilarious).”

Sarah Kucenas

Described by students and colleagues as a master communicator, mentor and role model for young women in the sciences, Assistant Professor of Biology Sarah Kucenas shares her expertise not only in the classroom, but also in forums in the Charlottesville community and through her research into the nervous system.

Balancing research, teaching and service, Kucenas uses innovative teaching methods and mentoring to incorporate undergraduate students into her research programs.

She challenges her students to think deeply and critically about their study material and to actively participate in their own learning. She also encourages her undergraduate students to actively participate in actual research in her lab, work that generally would be accomplished only at the graduate level. Her dedication to teaching has earned her a Department of Biology Distinguished Teaching Award and the U.Va. Alumni Board of Trustees Teaching Award, the highest teaching honor bestowed upon junior faculty at U.Va.

Kucenas is internationally known for her research to harness the regenerative capacity of the developing nervous system to help it repair itself during disease, research that could possibly lead to the development of target drugs that could help the nervous system self-repair. This has implications for the treatment of many childhood neurodegenerative diseases, including muscular dystrophy, pediatric multiple sclerosis and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.

During her five years at the University, she has earned nearly $2 million in research funding.

The Dominion Foundation has fully supported the Outstanding Faculty Awards program since 2005. Since the first awards ceremony in 1987, a total of 341 Virginia faculty members – including the 2015 recipients – have received this high honor.

“This is the 11th year Dominion has sponsored the Outstanding Faculty Awards,” said Hunter A. Applewhite, president of the Dominion Foundation. “When you read the nomination packets of these recipients, you are struck by their passion for their subjects and their devotion to sharing it with their students.”

Improving Heart Attack Care

U.Va. Health System Honored for Improving Heart Attack Care

The University of Virginia Health System has earned a national award from the American College of Cardiology for enhancing care for heart attack patients.

U.Va. is one of just 55 U.S. hospitals to receive the “ACTION Registry-Get With The Guidelines Gold Performance Achievement Award.”

Hospitals receive the award for consistent compliance with performance measures from the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association.

The standards focus on improving care for patients with a certain type of serious heart attack called a ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction, or STEMI.

Close coordination between U.Va.’s Emergency Department and Heart & Vascular Center is key to providing quality care for patients and earning this award. U.Va.’s STEMI alert process speeds care for patients with this type of heart attack through an on-call STEMI team that can be brought together within 30 minutes.

Over two consecutive years, U.Va. met performance standards for treating STEMIs at least 90 percent of the time, including:

  • Opening the blocked coronary artery in STEMI patients within 90 minutes of first contact with a rescue squad or other emergency medical responders.
  • Providing aspirin to STEMI patients within 24 hours of arrival at the hospital.
  • Prescribing beta blockers, aspirin and cholesterol-lowering medications when releasing STEMI patients from the hospital.Measuring heart function of STEMI patients before they are released from the hospital.
  • Providing STEMI patients who smoke with counseling on how to quit smoking before they are released from the hospital.

Dr. David R. Burt, an emergency medicine physician and director of the U.Va. Chest Pain Center, credited the dedication and teamwork of a large group in U.Va.’s Emergency Department and Cardiac Catheterization Lab as well as the partnership with local rescue squads.

“Everyone from our doctors and nurses to our scribes are key to providing high-quality care to patients suffering heart attacks as well as consistently seeking ways to improve our care,” Burt said. “Rescue squads from across Central Virginia play an important role as well by alerting us to potential STEMI patients they are transporting.”

Welcome Class of 2018

On Friday, August 15, the School of Medicine welcomed the 156 students of the Class of 2018 to the University of Virginia at the White Coat Ceremony and Convocation held in Old Cabell Hall.

The White Coat Ceremony.

This is an annual event presented by the UVA Medical Alumni Association (MAA) and Medical School Foundation (MSF).


Barry Collins, Executive Director, UVA MAA and MSF, Associate Dean for Medical Alumni Affairs, welcomed the new students, families and attendees. Student speaker Jonathan Pomeraniec, SMD ’15, President, School of Medicine Mulholland Society, offered words of advice on service and care from the student perspective and provided many examples from the Class of 2015 on the personal meaning that their white coats carry. (“My white coat has witnessed both sorrow and happiness.” “My white coat is worn with pride.” “My white coat makes 3-year-olds cry.”) Wallace Andrew Jr., MD ’75, President, UVA Medical Alumni Association Board of Directors, explained the benefits of the association and talked about how things have changed in medicine (and how they haven’t).

Richard Shannon, MD, Louise Nerancy Professor of Health Policy Science, Executive Vice President for Health Affairs, spoke about how the success in one’s professional life “has much more to do with serendipity than it does genetics”; how success is largely about opportunity. Dr. Shannon charged the new students to “rise above your own self-interest and embrace the needs of those who have not had the same opportunity. Then, and only then, will you know what it truly means to heal. Importantly, such service is not merely the price we pay for the privilege of being physicians, it is in fact a precondition.”

He continued: “You must be the agent of change in American medicine. Healthcare reform does not emanate from the Beltway. It begins the day you and all of us, as individual physicians, commit to relentlessly providing what our patients want and need, when they need it, on time, in the right amount, without defect, error or waste.”

College Deans Drs. Keeley, Densmore, Peterson and Balogun helped students shrug into their crisp white coats while Randolph Canterbury, MD, Wilford W. Spradlin Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Education, called out students’ names. Each white coat, a gift from the School of Medicine Class of 1965, was embroidered with the student’s name. The students and teachers then recited the “Covenant for the Entering Class and Their Teachers.”

More photos of the event and reception will be made available at UVAMedAlum.org.

Welcome to the University of Virginia, Class of 2018!