Catalyst grant spurs advanced research into the repair and regeneration of damaged tissue

Robert Gourdie

By Jim Stroup/Virginia Tech

Robert Gourdie, PhD

The Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute has been named a recipient of a generous grant from the Virginia Biosciences Health Research Corporation.

The $200,000 grant will fund collaborative studies on a treatment that halves the time it takes for diabetic foot ulcers to heal. The Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, the University of Virginia, and FirstString Research, Inc. will work to further develop the treatment Robert Gourdie, a professor at the institute, and his team discovered while studying something seemingly unrelated.

“Treating diabetic ulcers wasn’t our original intention,” said Gourdie, who directs the institute’s Center for Heart and Regenerative Medicine Research. “We had a fundamental question we wanted to research – how does electricity flow through the heart? We had no idea the answer would lead to a treatment for healing skin wounds.”

Gourdie and his team were initially interested in the mechanisms of how cells communicate. The scientists created a compound to prevent a certain protein on one cell from binding to its partner on another cell, essentially cutting the phone line between the two. The compound worked. It also created an interesting side effect in the research subjects.

“When we noticed this side effect, we realized we had found the key to understanding the mechanism of wound healing,” Gourdie said. “Wounds weren’t as inflamed. They healed quickly and scars were smaller or didn’t form.”

Recognizing the potential, Gautam Ghatnekar, a postdoctoral associate working in Gourdie’s lab, then at the Medical University of South Carolina, founded a company – FirstString Research, Inc. – to bring the compound to the public. Ghatnekar and his team had success in the first studies, but the treatment needs to go through stage-three clinical trials before it’s available for commercial use. These types of trials require implementing strict protocols at several centers all over the world. More than five hundred patients must match the correct criteria and undergo treatment of their diabetic foot ulcers.

“Clinical trials are expensive yet critically important,” Gourdie said. “Part of this grant is funding the phase 3 trial. This type of wound is slow to heal, and 10 percent of people with a diabetic foot ulcer will eventual require amputation of the limb.”

The grant will also fund Gourdie’s continued research into other ways the compound could heal the body, beyond skin wounds.

“We’re investigating the indications of this drug,” Gourdie said. “In the long term, we want to determine if this could heal damage in the heart.”

In that vein, Jeffrey Holmes, a professor of biomedical engineering and medicine at University of Virginia, will use part of the grant to lead an extensive study specifically designed to study how this compound could treat heart damage.

“We can’t predict the future based on what’s right in front of you. Fundamental research led to a treatment for people suffering,” Gourdie said. “This is a transformative industry, and support of collaborative research is essential.”

This is one of four grants awarded by the Virginia Biosciences Health Research Corporation, also called the Catalyst. The Catalyst was funded to encourage collaboration between universities and private research firms in Virginia. With an initial fund of $5 million from the state, the Catalyst also received contributions from six Virginia schools, including Virginia Tech. The Catalyst board will accept research proposals no fewer than four times a year for projects that foster relationships between public and private research. Ultimately, the goal is for scientists to combine fundamental research and clinical treatment into innovative projects aimed at improving human health.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe praised the Catalyst grants and the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in a recent speech at the PhRMA annual meeting in Washinton, DC.

“We know that our efforts to promote productive collaboration are working. Our Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in Roanoke is a great example of collaboration,” McAuliffe said. “The Commonwealth, Virginia Tech and Carilion health care system all co-funded the creation of a new medical school and hospital and moved the research institute to [the] same location… This is just one exciting example of what happens when institutions come together in Virginia to collaborate.”