From left: Wendy Bottinor, Jiong Li and Mathula Thangarajh.
From left: Wendy Bottinor, Jiong Li and Mathula Thangarajh.

Researchers receive national award to further study muscular dystrophy, cancer and heart failure

Wendy Bottinor, Mathula Thangarajh and Jiong Li are VCU’s newest KL2 scholars.

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Three Virginia Commonwealth University researchers were awarded funding that will support the expansion of their health research and translation of that research into improved care for patients.

Wendy Bottinor, M.D., and Mathula Thangarajh, M.D., Ph.D., both from the VCU School of Medicine, and Jiong Li, Ph.D., from the VCU School of Pharmacy, are VCU’s 2021 KL2 scholars. The KL2 Mentored Career Development Award provides early career faculty with dedicated research time to help their findings benefit human health more quickly, while becoming successful, independent translational scientists. 

“The last few years have made it abundantly clear: Health research must have a meaningful impact on public health. VCU researchers are leading the way in that regard,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “These awards will give some of our brightest junior researchers the time and opportunity they need to make significant contributions to their respective fields.” 

For two years, the KL2 scholars will receive financial support and protected time to focus on multidisciplinary research. Their respective mentors will play a vital role in fostering their career development, and the mentor-mentee relationship will form the basis for growth as an independent clinical and translational investigator. 

Administered by the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, the program creates an environment of comprehensive support for the researchers using the established resources and training mechanisms of the center.

“The KL2 program provides individualized, programmatic career development from highly experienced mentors in clinical and translational research,” Bottinor said. “I am fortunate that such a tremendous team of mentors is committed to supporting my goals as a clinical and translational physician-investigator.”

Bottinor specializes in cardiovascular disease and is an assistant professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Internal Medicine. Her research focuses on heart failure in people who had cancer in their childhood or adolescence. About 10% of early cancer survivors develop heart failure by age 40, and little is known about why. By using innovative cardiac imaging technology available at VCU, Bottinor hopes to understand the underlying reasons in order to develop clinical interventions and medical therapies. Bottinor is a VCU Massey Cancer Center research member.

Li, an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry at the School of Pharmacy and a Massey Cancer Center researcher, focuses on understanding the key regulatory mechanisms of cancer stem cells to develop a more effective treatment for head and neck cancers. Cancer stem cells have been shown to induce resistance to chemotherapy and a recurrence of cancer and how to eliminate them has been an obstacle to successful treatment. By taking advantage of a new technique, called PROTACs, Li aims to eradicate cancer stem cells and improve the efficacy of cancer therapy.

“The KL2 Program will be a great opportunity and a tremendous help for me to develop my research program in translational studies,” said Li, adding that his career goal is to use multidisciplinary approaches to develop effective therapeutic strategies for the eradication of human cancers.

Thangarajh is an assistant professor of neurology in the School of Medicine's Department of Neurology and sees pediatric patients with neuromuscular diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU. Her long-term research goal is to develop highly impactful therapeutics that will improve the quality of life for children with muscular dystrophy, using novel approaches to obtain a better understanding of neurobiological mechanisms that underpin cognitive problems in these children.

“The KL2 offers a very structured mentoring plan, and my mentors bring transdisciplinary experience that will help me create novel methodological approaches to solve some unanswered questions in this field,” Thangarajh said. “Plus, the program has very specific milestones, like obtaining federal funding for one’s research. For someone like me who is goal-oriented and deadline-driven, I like having those goal posts. And there is an experienced and invested team helping me to reach them.”

“We’re excited to welcome Wendy, Mathula and Jiong to the KL2 program,” said Patrick Nana-Sinkam, M.D., associate director of the Wright Center and KL2 program leader. “Our resources and grounding in team science, community engagement, clinical trials and grant writing will be the catalyst that these junior researchers need to develop into independent, translational researchers.” 

In 2018, the National Institutes of Health awarded the Wright Center a five-year, $21.5 million Clinical and Translational Science Award — VCU’s largest NIH grant. The KL2 program is supported by the grant, which is administered through the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. 

Since first receiving the award in 2010, the Wright Center has provided 14 KL2 awards to a diverse team of research-scholars who come from a variety of disciplines. Previous KL2 scholars have included faculty members from the university’s School of Social Work, the College of Health Professions Department of Physical Therapy and the School of Dentistry.

Scholars receive $25,000 each year to fund their research, and the program covers 75% of their salary — in order for that time to be dedicated to research. The scholars’ mentors also receive an allowance for their support. 

Alums of the program recently shared memories of their time as scholars with the Wright Center. 

“There were quite high expectations of us as NIH-funded KL2 scholars,” said April Kimmel, Ph.D., a 2013 scholar and now an associate professor in the VCU Department of Health Behavior and Policy. “The expectations felt unachievable — except that then I achieved them. I felt very supported as a human being from everyone involved in the program and at the Wright Center.”