A man sitting in front of equipment.
Qingguo Xu, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Pharmaceutics of the School of Pharmacy, was one of six recipients of the fall 2022 round of TechTransfer and Ventures’ Commercialization Fund Awards. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Drug delivery, new therapies, AI, VR: Array of VCU inventors receive Commercialization Fund awards

Cholesterol drug may help treat eye disorders.

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A Virginia Commonwealth University pharmacy professor and his team have repurposed a long-approved drug that could soon be used to treat eye disorders such as diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration.

Qingguo Xu, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Pharmaceutics of the School of Pharmacy, has formulated a pharmaceutical using fenofibrate, an FDA-approved oral drug used to treat high cholesterol. Fenofibrate also activates a protein in the body known as peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor alpha (PPAR-alpha), which Xu’s lab is studying for its ability to improve the body’s “good” cholesterol, decrease triglycerides and reduce inflammation. Those factors cause diabetic retinopathy and speed up macular degeneration, which can impair vision and even cause blindness.

Xu was one of six recipients of the fall 2022 round of the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation's TechTransfer and Ventures’ Commercialization Fund Awards. These awards support researchers who are conducting valuable research that may one day be translated into real-world applications.

“The inventors we’ve selected represent a diverse group of researchers from across VCU and the health system who are contributing transformational and translational research that we believe will one day be a benefit to society,” said Ivelina Metcheva, Ph.D., VCU’s assistant vice president of innovation and head of VCU TechTransfer and Ventures.

“Each of them is using their own knowledge to enrich the human experience, improve society, optimize health and support sustainable environments, and these awards help to spotlight their efforts,” she said.

“Congratulations to the six recipients of the OVPRI's VCU TechTransfer and Ventures Commercialization Fund. With this funding, I'm excited to see these drugs and devices in the marketplace and translated into real-world applications,” said P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., VCU's vice president for research and innovation.

The current treatment for the ocular conditions Xu studies is a class of drugs, known as anti-VEGF, that slow growth of abnormal blood vessels in the eye. The drug is injected into the numbed eye either monthly or every other month by an ophthalmologist. While the medication can stabilize most patients’ vision, it improves vision only in about one-third of them.

Xu’s fenofibrate formulation is also injected into the eye but releases the medication slowly over time. Patients would need only one or two injections a year. And, he said, activating PPAR-alpha is likely more effective than targeting VEGF, the substance that stimulates vessel formation in the eye.

“We’re repurposing a drug that has known safety and efficacy, is used routinely, and patients will be more compliant because they don’t have to get as many treatments over the course of a year,” Xu said.

Xu and his research partner, Jian-Xing Ma, M.D., Ph.D., the chair and a professor of biochemistry at Wake Forest University, were granted a patent on the formulation in June 2022 with the guidance of VCU TechTransfer and Ventures.

Additional Commercialization Fund awards were given to:

Supriyo Bandyopadhyay, Ph.D., the Commonwealth Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering, has delved into the field of artificial intelligence, which is increasingly used in smart cities, appliances, self-driving cars and more. The primary mathematical function that runs under most AI systems is matrix multiplication, which is done on a piece of hardware. Trillions of these pieces of hardware are required to power AI engines in the next decade. Bandyopadhyay has invented a compact, energy-efficient, nonvolatile, nonbinary nanomagnetic matrix multiplier that can act as a hardware accelerator for machine learning and AI.

Aaron May, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry of the School of Pharmacy, is working on “novel targeted antimicrobial prodrug therapy” technology, which has potential to not only create a new family of antibiotics, but repurpose some existing medications that are no longer used due to low efficacy.

Richard Marconi, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the School of Medicine who is long known for his work in treating and preventing tick-borne illnesses. Marconi is using his vaccine platform to attack Leptospirosis, the most common animal-borne infection worldwide which can lead to kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, respiratory distress and even death. Marconi is working to translate the approved Lyme disease vaccine he invented for dogs into one for humans. His trials of the vaccine platform for Leptospirosis have created an immune response in animal models that the professor calls “extremely exciting and provide proof of principle for the development of a subunit vaccine.” Unlike vaccines that contain entire disease pathogens, subunit vaccines include only those antigens that best stimulate the immune system.

Lauren Siff, M.D., an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics-Gynecology at the School of Medicine as well as a urogynecologist with the Central Virginia VA Health System, is partnering with L. Franklin Bost, director of product innovation for the VCU Institute of Engineering and Medicine. Their work on “Sling VR” is a virtual reality application to train surgeons for a procedure to treat urinary incontinence in women. Read more about the technology and other collaborators.

Xuewei Wang, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry of the College of Humanities and Sciences, who develops methods of delivering nitric oxide (NO) used in therapeutics. Over the years, studies have looked at delivering NO for use in blood pressure regulation, eradication of pathogens, blood-clot prevention and wound healing. However, current methods of NO gas delivery rely on high-pressure tanks or high-energy reactors — all expensive, hazardous and inconvenient. Wang’s technology is creating NO-releasing biomedical devices such as insulin infusion cannulas, continuous glucose monitors and central venous catheters that are cost-effective, compact and safe. VCU TechTransfer and Ventures filed three provisional patents on Wang’s technology in 2022.