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Massey researchers awarded VCU KL2 grants to further cancer research

Sep 20, 2021

researcher headshots Wendy Bottinor, M.D., (left) and Jiong Li, Ph.D., (right) are tow of VCU's 2021 KL2 scholars.

Two Massey 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 Jiong Li, Ph.D., are two of 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, a research member of the Cancer Prevention and Control program, specializes in cardiovascular disease and is also 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.

Li, a Massey researcher with the Cancer Biology program and an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry at the School of Pharmacy, 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.

“We’re excited to welcome [these researchers] to the KL2 program,” said Patrick Nana-Sinkam, M.D., Massey researcher, 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.”

Re-purposed from an article by Jackie Kruszewski from the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research

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