By Tom Gresham
University Public Affairs
Virginia Commonwealth University will radically expand treatment options for liver and liver-related metabolic diseases thanks to a historic, transformational $104 million gift from R. Todd Stravitz, M.D., and his family’s Barbara Brunckhorst Foundation.
This gift is the largest in VCU’s history, the second-largest publicly shared gift to a university in Virginia and the largest publicly shared gift to support liver research in U.S. history — over four times more than the previous largest gift. It will position VCU as a global leader in liver disease and metabolic health research, teaching and patient care.
“Words cannot capture my feelings of gratitude for the transformative gift of Dr. Todd Stravitz and the Barbara Brunckhorst Foundation,” said Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU and VCU Health. “Todd has made history with his incredible leadership and generosity to VCU, supporting an institute that will forever change VCU and catalyze its commitment to our work with the human liver and metabolism. This gift firmly puts the needs of patients first.”
Rao continued: “The institute’s research will have an enormous impact on our lives, changing medicine and our understanding of the role the liver plays in human health. This gift is extraordinarily generous, and it is most certainly generative. It allows us to bring together top teams to deliver clinical care, to ask important questions, develop new tools to explore what causes liver disease and how we stop it, prevent it and even reverse it. Most importantly, it will immediately make a difference in the lives of thousands of people with liver disease. Ultimately, this will positively impact millions.”
Stravitz, a physician-philanthropist in the Department of Internal Medicine at VCU School of Medicine, dedicated his whole career as a liver clinician and researcher to VCU. Before retiring in 2020, he served as medical director of liver transplantation at VCU Health’s Hume-Lee Transplant Center for a decade.
A transformational $104 million gift from R. Todd Stravitz, M.D., and his family’s Barbara Brunckhorst Foundation will advance the new Stravitz-Sanyal Institute for Liver Disease and Metabolic Health at VCU.
Urgent need for research, new treatments in liver disease
About 1 in 10 Americans have some type of liver disease, and it is one of the top 10 factors reducing life expectancy in the U.S. It is sometimes called a “silent killer” because it can go unnoticed until a liver transplant is the only treatment option. In 2021, about three people died on the liver transplant waiting list every day.
“The vision for this institute is to make liver transplant the last, but not the only, option for patients,” Stravitz said. “We will do this by investing in gene therapy and working hand in hand with biotech companies. In the process, VCU will train and educate the next generation of world-renowned liver experts.”
Focus on translational science
The Stravitz-Sanyal Institute for Liver Disease and Metabolic Health at VCU will take full advantage of VCU’s position as one of the nation’s top public research universities and its 50-year legacy of excellence in liver care and research.
The patient-centered institute will bring together and align the work of several entities already dealing with liver disease or its effects on other organs. These include the hepatology and research teams in VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Internal Medicine, VCU Health’s Hume-Lee Transplant Center, VCU Massey Cancer Center and VCU Health’s Pauley Heart Center. Over time, VCU Health will be able to serve twice the patient volume for liver-related illnesses.
Focused on translational science, the institute will grow research and health care teams for liver-related clinical specialties, such as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, end-stage liver disease, liver transplantation, liver cancer, women’s liver health issues and rare diseases in hepatology. Arun J. Sanyal, M.D., professor in VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Internal Medicine and a researcher and liver disease specialist at VCU Health, will serve as the institute’s director.
“The liver impacts the health of all other organs because of its central role in metabolism and how the body uses energy. When the liver shuts down, all organs suffer,” said Sanyal, interim chair of the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at VCU School of Medicine. “Discoveries of the institute will develop new diagnostics and treatments and inform practice guidelines for liver-related diseases around the world, as well as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and kidney failure. The status quo of how we treat liver disease is no longer acceptable.”
Platform for scientific innovation
Stravitz’s historic gift enables VCU to accelerate implementing several priorities of the new institute, which was publicly launched in December:
- Investment in microbiome research, gene editing approaches, imaging tools, digital technologies and data analytics to develop innovative solutions to both rare and common liver diseases, in close partnership with academic and industry collaborators from around the world.
- Investment in endowed positions and new degree programs at the graduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral level to foster the development of current and future generations of researchers and clinicians. The institute will be able to recruit 30 to 60 new researchers, faculty and staff — more than doubling the size of the existing interdisciplinary team at VCU dedicated to liver research.
- Inclusion of other VCU disciplines in the interdisciplinary approach, such as engineering, nursing, pharmacy, social work, arts and business. The holistic approach allows treating the whole patient by also addressing lifestyle and socioeconomic factors that negatively affect liver health.
- The remarkable private gift comes at a time when VCU’s sponsored research is also breaking records, reaching an all-time high of $363 million in 2021 — a 25% increase over the previous three years. The National Science Foundation in December ranked VCU No. 58 of public universities nationwide for federally funded research expenditures, putting the university within reach of its goal to break into the top 50 of its peers.
Sanyal’s research interests include all aspects of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, especially nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, as well as alcohol-related liver disease and end-stage liver disease, for which he has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health since 1995. He oversees multiple pivotal global clinical trials and works closely with the Food and Drug Administration on the Liver Forum to accelerate diagnostics and drug development for liver disease. He has also previously served as president of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.
“It takes many leaders to enact an ambitious vision like this. At VCU, we have a community of bold and visionary leaders who are extending the human experience to new levels,” Rao said. One of the early champions for the institute was Peter Buckley, M.D., former dean of VCU’s School of Medicine. The institute will operate under the umbrella of the medical school.
“We are on the cusp of changing medicine, but it takes a visionary and mentor like Arun Sanyal to train the next generation of liver specialists and make VCU the No. 1 liver center in the world,” Stravitz said. “This gift is just a means to achieve our goal to better care for patients around the world. A future where patients can undergo gene therapy to repair faulty genes instead of needing a liver transplant would be a monumental win for human health.”
Sanyal holds the Z. Reno Vlahcevic Research Professorship in Gastroenterology, which honors his mentor, who died in 2000. A researcher at VCU Massey Cancer Center, Sanyal is also the associate director of the KL2 program for training faculty in research at VCU’s C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, which oversees clinical trials at the university with the help of a $21.5 million NIH grant.
“As a world-class researcher himself, Todd Stravitz exemplifies the power of medical research to make the world a better place,” Sanyal said about his longtime colleague. “With his generous, future-focused gift, Todd is ensuring that VCU’s capacity to attract outstanding minds and produce future scientific leaders is very strong for generations to come.”
The gift also establishes two endowed chairs at VCU’s School of Medicine: the Arun J. Sanyal Endowed Professor of Medicine and the Phillip B. Hylemon Endowed Professor of Medicine and Microbiology.
“This is truly a transformative moment in VCU’s history as a national research university and medical center,” said H. Benson Dendy III, rector of the VCU Board of Visitors. “On behalf of the Board of Visitors, I am tremendously grateful for this historic gift. This generous investment in VCU will accelerate the university's efforts to prevent liver disease and to treat and heal those affected by it. The impact of this gift will be felt by people around the world.”
The institute’s official name is pending approval by VCU’s Board of Visitors.