Young researchers will further work in prenatal care, cancer immunotherapy and microRNA through career development program

Share this story

Virginia Commonwealth University this month welcomed three clinician researchers to a mentored career development program designed to prepare them for the health care challenges of the future.

Elizabeth Wolf, M.D., and Mario Acunzo, M.D., both from the VCU School of Medicine, and Guizhi (Julian) Zhu, Ph.D., from the VCU School of Pharmacy, have been named Clinical Research KL2 Scholars. The KL2 program provides early-career researchers with dedicated time to help their findings benefit human health more quickly, while becoming successful, independent translational scientists.

“There is a national need to increase the clinical and translational research workforce and prepare the future generation of research leaders to address imminent health care challenges,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “Through opportunities like the KL2 research program, VCU is leveraging its interdisciplinary strengths in clinical research and community engagement to make meaningful improvements in patient care.”

Over the course of three years, the Clinical Research KL2 Scholars will receive financial support and protected time to focus on mentored, multidisciplinary research. The mentor-mentee relationship forms the basis for growth as an independent clinical and translational investigator, with mentors playing vital roles in fostering scholars’ career development, such as by helping them identify and pursue relevant educational and training opportunities.

Elizabeth Wolf, M.D.
Elizabeth Wolf, M.D.

“The KL2 award will give me the skills I need to conduct my research and will support the growth of pediatric health services research at VCU,” said Wolf an assistant professor of pediatrics and emergency care. Wolf added that the grant will further her career development with her mentor Alex Krist, M.D., a professor in the VCU Department of Family Medicine and Population Healthand co-director of community-engaged research at VCU’s C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research.

Wolf, who sees pediatric patients at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, plans to identify geographic and patient-level risk factors for inadequate prenatal care and well-child care in the Greater Richmond Region. She will partner with the VCU Center on Society and Health to develop strategies aimed at reducing health disparities for vulnerable women and children.

Mario Acunzo, M.D.
Mario Acunzo, M.D.

Acunzo, an assistant professor of pulmonary disease and critical care medicine, plans to investigate the role of microRNA editing in lung cancer progression. Similar to DNA, RNAs are one of the building blocks of the human body. MicroRNAs are a recently discovered class of non-coding RNAs that play key roles in gene expression regulation. In addition to understanding the role of microRNA editing in the development of disease, Acunzo, a member of the Developmental Therapeutics program at the VCU Massey Cancer Center, plans to pursue microRNA editing as a potential biomarker to improve early detection of lung cancer. 

“Being a Clinical Research KL2 Scholar represents a great opportunity to advance my career as a researcher,” Acunzo said. “I look forward to having the protected time and support required to build a successful research program.”

Guizhi (Julian) Zhu, Ph.D.
Guizhi (Julian) Zhu, Ph.D.

Zhu, an assistant professor of pharmaceutics and an associate member of the VCU Massey Cancer Center, will spend three years developing next-generation nanomedicines for combination cancer immunotherapy. Nanomedicine is a branch of medicine that applies the knowledge and tools of nanotechnology to the prevention and treatment of disease.

“The KL2 scholarship will be a great opportunity and encouragement for me to establish my independent research team, and eventually translate our research development from the bench to the bedside,” Zhu said, adding that his goal is to develop innovative therapeutic strategies that use the body's immune response to enhance drug delivery, targeting and efficacy.

“We are delighted to welcome Liz, Julian and Mario to the KL2 scholars program,” said KL2 program co-director Patrick Nana-Sinkam, M.D. “In the next three years, they will have opportunities to engage with the Wright Center in areas including team science, community engagement, clinical trials and grant writing. By providing each of them with a tailored, mentored career development plan, we envision they will be well-positioned for research independence and for translating their research findings to improve human health throughout their careers.”

Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health awarded the Wright Center with a five-year, $21.5 million Clinical and Translational Science Award — VCU’s largest NIH grant ever. The KL2 program is supported by the grant, which is administered through the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. VCU is the only academic health center in Virginia to receive a Clinical and Translational Science Award.

Since first receiving the award in 2010, the Wright Center has provided 15 KL2 awards to a diverse team of research scholars who come from a variety of clinical research disciplines. Previous Clinical Research 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.