Briefs: Research at the School of Pharmacy

By the book  

Pharmacotherapy: A Pathophysiologic Approach book cover

Dean Joseph T. DiPiro has been a leader in pharmacy education for decades. His contributions include the textbook he edits, “Pharmacotherapy: A Pathophysiologic Approach,” now in its 11th edition.

The textbook regularly spotlights VCU’s pharmacy expertise, with chapters authored by VCU School of Pharmacy faculty including Donald Brophy, Rachel Flurie, Cynthia Kirkwood, Gary Matzke, Emily Peron, Kacie Powers and Patricia Slattum.

Some “Pharmacotherapy” facts from the publisher, McGraw-Hill:

  • Used in 94% of U.S. pharmacy schools
  • Sells more than 10,000 units annually
  • Represents 34% of all usage worldwide on McGraw Hill’s pharmacy digital subscription product

Yana Cen
Yana Cen

Cen wins Powe award  

Yana Cen, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the School of Pharmacy, has been awarded the prestigious 2021 Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award from the Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

The award comes with a $5,000 financial award and an equivalent match from the winner’s local institution. This marks the second Powe award for the School of Pharmacy in three years. Qingguo Xu, D.Phil., received one in 2018. 

School lauded for inclusive culture

The School of Pharmacy has been named the most inclusive academic department at VCU — a notable distinction at a university that has long cited inclusion as a main priority.

The honor is the result of an exhaustive survey by VCU’s Division for Inclusive Excellence. Major academic and administrative units are assessed every 18 months.

Faculty and staff reported highly inclusive and engaged environments where leadership was perceived as having integrity related to diversity issues. There were also strong feelings of motivation and competency among faculty and staff in the workplace.

“We have initiated a different approach to faculty and staff relationships, breaking down some of the barriers in between,” said Dean Joseph DiPiro. “While we celebrate the recognition for ‘campus climate’ we will continue to seek new ways to assure that our school remains a great place to work.”

Anesa Hughes
Anesa Hughes

Documentary wins prestigious award

A 2019 mini-documentary from the School of Pharmacy has been awarded a coveted Circle of Excellence award, sometimes called the “Oscars of higher education marketing.” The video, a profile of recent Pharm.D. graduate Anesa Hughes and her twin sister, who lives with cerebral palsy, was praised for its compelling story and gorgeous videography. This marks just the second Circle of Excellence award in VCU history.

Watch the video here:

Zhu developing patches to mail vaccine

Guizhi Zhu
Guizhi "Julian" Zhu

Someday, vaccinations could show up in people’s mailboxes and be applied as simply as slapping on a Band-Aid. That’s the vision of Guizhi “Julian” Zhu, Ph.D., at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy

Zhu, an assistant professor in the school’s Department of Pharmaceutics, is researching a way to use tiny needles embedded in a small patch to give vaccinations.  “People, no matter who they are, can apply the patch to their own arm,” Zhu said. “And that’s it. People are vaccinated.” 

That means would be relatively simple to send vaccines directly to people in the mail — each vaccine patch is about the size of a little fingernail and would fit easily inside an envelope. Microneedles on the patch would dispense harmless synthetic fragments of a virus embedded in a protective ball of nanoparticles that dissolves once it enters the body. 

Zhu’s research, funded in part by the Department of Pharmaceutics and VCU’s Center for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Sciences, was one of the first 20 proposals to receive grants from VCU’s COVID-19 Rapid Research Fund. 

Zhu is an associate member of the Developmental Therapeutics research program at VCU Massey Cancer Center. With support from the VCU School of Medicine lab of Aron Lichtman, Ph.D., Zhu is working on preclinical studies to be sure the patches will deliver predictable doses of vaccines. 

$6.8M grant for opioid research

VCU’s School of Medicine and School of Pharmacy have teamed up on a $6.8 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to support an interdisciplinary research center on addiction to opioids and other drugs of abuse.

The grant to the Central Virginia Center on Drug Abuse Research at VCU will encourage researchers at Virginia universities and collaborating institutions to work together on projects that cut across scientific disciplines to treat drug addiction and the damage it wreaks.

William Dewey, Ph.D., the center’s director and chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at VCU School of Medicine, said he views the center’s five-year funding as pivotal in the search for solutions to the suffering caused by the opioid crisis.

The grant will fund work in four key areas. Research related to genetic engineering and viral vectors will be led by Aron Lichtman, Ph.D., associate dean for research and graduate studies at VCU School of Pharmacy and professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at VCU School of Medicine and the Department of Medicinal Chemistry at VCU School of Pharmacy.

 After 25 years, Don Brophy leaves VCU

Don Brophy
Don Brophy

After a quarter-century at the School of Pharmacy and 13 as chair of the Department of Pharmacotherapy & Outcomes Science, Donald Brophy, the Nancy L. and Ronald H. McFarlane Professor of Pharmacy, is moving on. He’s taken a position with Massachusetts-based Sanofi Genzyme, where he will be a medical director for two new agents to treat hemophilia. He will remain in Richmond and receive emeritus status at VCU.

Thinking back over your time at the School of Pharmacy, are there moments that strike you as particularly memorable?

Brophy: I had the opportunity to work with a number of outstanding individuals who have passed. Amy Whitaker Rudenko, Amy Pakyz, Bill Barr, others. I knew these individuals extremely well. Each one of those losses robs the wind out of your sails. They all affected me profoundly. On the other side of things, making new hires and being able to remake the department in my own image were some of the most enjoyable aspects.

What will you miss most?

The camaraderie. Everyone really enjoys interacting with each other at the school. I’m also going to miss my lab, and Erika Martin, who ran the lab. I’m going to miss our students. I’m not going to miss the HVAC unit in Smith.

Leaving is hard. ... There’s a script that’s yet to be written on what the next move is. I’m awfully excited about it but my heart aches a little bit.

Nation’s first Ph.D. in pharmaceutical engineering

Virginia Commonwealth University now is home to the nation’s first Ph.D. program in pharmaceutical engineering.

The doctoral program, a collaboration between VCU’s School of Pharmacy and College of Engineering, will focus on research and training students in areas of drug product development such as continuous manufacturing and drug-containing nanomaterials. 

“As a nationally prominent research institution, VCU is proud to lead the next wave of pharmaceutical innovation,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “I am grateful to SCHEV for its support of this program and for recognizing how it can benefit the commonwealth and the world.” 

The doctoral program enrolled its first students in fall 2020. Its multidisciplinary curriculum offers students unique professional development opportunities and will cover advanced topics in the field, experimental techniques, and scientific integrity, along with extensive directed and independent cross-disciplinary research. 

“Our mission is to provide a student-centric, collaborative and team-based experience for our students. We will prepare the future generation of science and engineering leaders who can act in the pharmaceutical industry as well as in regulatory areas and academic settings,” said Sandro da Rocha, Ph.D., director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Sciences in the School of Pharmacy and professor of pharmaceutics. “By training scientists in better delivery systems and new medicines and therapies, we intend to find ways to treat complex diseases, even ones that have been considered untreatable.”

Historically, investment in the development of new medicines has focused on research more than on product delivery and manufacturing. In recent years, however, the United States Food and Drug Administration has encouraged innovations in delivery systems such as nanomedicine and improvements in manufacturing processes to help ensure that patients get the medicines they need safely and effectively. 

“The VCU School of Pharmacy has always prepared professionals for the health care needs of the future,” said Joseph T. DiPiro, Pharm.D., dean of the pharmacy school and Archie O. McCalley chair. “This new Ph.D. program supports that mission, and cements VCU’s status as a groundbreaker in health-related education in ways that have visible and powerful effects on our communities.” 

Learn more at the program’s website,