VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., presents Robert Diegelmann, Ph.D., with the VCU Inventor of the Year Award with P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., vice president of research and innovation at VCU. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

VCU celebrates inventor’s lifesaving contributions to wound healing

Innovator is recognized for the development of wound-sealing compound and other medical innovations.

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Robert F. Diegelmann, Ph.D., partially has his family cat to thank for the invention of mineral hemostatic compound, or a lightweight dressing that staunches bleeding from major wounds with applications for the military and civilians.

When his wife tasked him with checking whether the cat box needed cleaning before hosting a dinner party with friends, Diegelmann noted the litter clumped together when wet.

“I went out and looked at the cat box and I thought, ‘What is this stuff?’” he said. “I read the package and it said scoopable, clumping kitty litter." 

Sodium bentonite is the active ingredient in cat litter that causes the clumping reaction. The natural sealant is now an active ingredient in the compound, which has been described as resembling a mixture of cat litter and flour that can be packed into wounds. Nearly 13 years after Diegelmann’s dinner party, the compound was patented in 2017. 

The technology was developed and studied by Diegelmann and Kevin Ward, M.D., a former Virginia Commonwealth University emergency physician and former associate director of the VCU Reanimation Engineering Shock Center – VCURES, and is used in the United States, Europe and Canada.

Diegelmann, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the School of Medicine, received the university’s 2018 Billy R. Martin Award for Innovation for his work on this technology and other innovations in wound healing and tissue repair. The innovator award is named for a late chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. A neuropharmacologist and educator, Martin conducted groundbreaking translational research in substance abuse.

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., praised Diegelmann at a reception last week hosted by the VCU Innovation Gateway for his distinguished research career and enrichment of students.

“He has made incredible contributions to wound healing and trauma for nearly 50 years, not just the years he has been at VCU,” Rao said. “I have had the opportunity to talk with students who have enjoyed being taught by him, and in many cases people say, ‘He is the reason why I am successful as a physician or a researcher.’”

Diegelmann is listed on nine patent applications and holds four U.S. patents and three foreign patents licensed to three companies. He has published more than 200 scientific articles and book chapters, two books and serves on the editorial board of the journal Wound Repair and Regeneration.

In May, the technology received approval from the Food and Drug Administration for use in gastrointestinal bleeds. It is currently available for sale in the U.S., Europe, Canada, Australia and the developing world.

“Last year, 22,000 people in the United States alone died from [gastrointestinal] bleeds,” Diegelmann said. “The compound is basically 100 percent effective. Our motto over the years has been simple solutions to complex problems, and that’s what this is.”

Another product based on the same invention is being marketed and sold worldwide as a hemostatic agent for injuries sustained during combat.

The VCU Innovation Gateway, within the Office of Research and Innovation, facilitated the commercialization of the technology and works with university researchers to bring inventions with real-world applications to the public. This often involves supporting research through collaborative agreements or through new venture creation. Last year, VCU Innovation Gateway helped secure more than $2.7 million in licensing revenue, $1.6 million in proof-of-concept funding and finished with a record 30 patents, up from 22 in 2016.