Three men standing next to each other
Robert Diegelmann, Ph.D., a distinguished career and emeritus professor at the VCU School of Medicine, (center) with VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., (left) and P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation at VCU. Diegelmann donated a collection related to his research into hemostasis to a Richmond-based museum. (Contributed photo)

Virginia Museum of History & Culture acquires VCU researcher's trauma care collection

Robert F. Diegelmann’s research led to a breakthrough in the products used to stop the massive loss of blood in emergencies.

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A Virginia Commonwealth University biochemistry and molecular biology professor’s life’s work in trauma care — particularly, research focused on stopping the massive loss of blood in emergencies — has been preserved in a gift to the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

In June, Robert F. Diegelmann, Ph.D., a distinguished career and emeritus professor at the VCU School of Medicine, donated to the Richmond-based museum a collection of 16 items related to his research into hemostasis. His efforts ultimately led to the discovery of the blood-clotting properties of sodium bentonite, an absorbent clay often found in kitty litter.

Diegelmann and research partner Kevin Ward, M.D., a former VCU emergency physician who now serves on faculty at the University of Michigan Medical School, made the discovery in 2004. Their intellectual property was licensed by the company Z-Medica in 2017 and is used in QuikClot, which offers a line of bleeding-control products used in hospital, EMS, law enforcement and military situations worldwide. Aspects of the technology are also used in Cook Medical’s Hemospray Endoscopic Hemostat product, which has become a leading strategy in treating life-threatening gastrointestinal bleeding.

“Bob and Kevin’s research in trauma care and the IP that came from it represents one of the largest licensing deals VCU has ever made with a private company, and more importantly it is one that saves lives,” said Ivelina Metcheva, Ph.D., assistant vice president for innovation at VCU Innovation Gateway. “Theirs is an example of translational research that optimizes the health of people and has true real-world applications.”

Among the items donated to the museum: a sampling of the bentonite compound; packaging of previous iterations of clotting products, including the current QuikClot Combat Gauze used on battlefields; a plaque from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command recognizing Diegelmann and team’s work in hemostasis; and a letter from U.S. Senator Mark R. Warner commending the researcher on his recognition as VCU’s innovator of the year. Also included: his wife’s consumer-grade coffee grinder used to turn kitty litter into a fine grain in the researchers’ initial experiments.

And indeed, it was Diegelmann’s observation of his cat’s clumping kitty litter 18 years ago that led to his and Ward’s development of the bentonite compound.

“This is a collection of items that shows how a mix of ingenuity and just taking some observation of the world around you, and thinking clinically, can lead to life-saving research and products,” says Diegelmann, recipient of the 2018 Billy R. Martin Innovation Award (Inventor of the Year) from VCU Innovation Gateway. “This is work that has given us a lot of satisfaction knowing that we have saved thousands of lives around the world, and it’s great to be able to share our work with the public.”

Various items sitting on a table
A sample of items from Robert Diegelmann's donated collection. (Virginia Museum of History & Culture)

Museum staff are photographing, documenting and cataloguing the VCU hemostasis collection. Once complete, the materials will be uploaded to a publicly searchable database on the museum’s website. To view it in person requires an appointment with the museum, but the collection could go on display in the near future.

The Virginia Museum of History & Culture maintains a collection of more than 9 million items. The most recent acquisition from VCU was in April 2021, when the museum picked up materials related to the initial administration of the COVID-19 vaccine in Virginia, including the first two Pfizer vaccine vials used by VCU Health.

“Our mission is to tell the story of Virginia, and part of storytelling means collecting, preserving and interpreting the commonwealth's history to inspire future generations,” said Adam Scher, vice president for collections & exhibitions at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. “Bob and Kevin developed a product in Virginia that has applications worldwide. It is important for us to document and share this one aspect of Virginia’s history — as the origin of life-saving trauma care — to inspire future generations and researchers with interests in the field of critical illness and injury.”