A legacy of learning

With its recent renewal, the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology’s T32 training program has secured 50 years of continuous funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

When Bill Dewey, Ph.D., arrived at VCU’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology in 1972 at the invitation of then-chair Lou Harris, Ph.D., Harris’s vision for the fledgling department was clear: put together a strong team and build a solid foundation.

“That’s what Dr. Harris gave me the job to do – to be the director of graduate students in the department and find a mechanism to fund them so we could attract more students, bring more research to the university and build up a group of addiction scientists,” said Dewey, who has served as department chair for the past 13 years.

One of these funding mechanisms was a T32 training grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse that Dewey secured in 1976 to support the training of pre-doctoral and post-doctoral pharmacologists in addiction research. Since then, Dewey has renewed this grant every five years like clockwork. Earlier this summer, it was funded for the tenth time, ensuring the continuous funding of the training program through 2026 and making it both NIDA’s and VCU’s longest funded institutional training grant.

“To have a grant with the same PI funded for 50 years is truly an exceptional achievement,” said Peter Buckley, M.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine. “It demonstrates the quality of the faculty and the addiction research they are conducting as well as the leadership of Dr. Dewey. This program has brought tremendous prestige to the university, and the decades-worth of scientists and scientific knowledge it has produced have made significant contributions to improving the health of our community.”

Laying a foundation for success

Since the grant was initially awarded, it has provided more than 600 student or trainee years of funding, which includes money for tuition, equipment and supplies.

“You’re not going to get a renewal if you’re not showing results – and we are showing results,” said Sandra Welch, Ph.D., who was supported by the training grant as a pre-doctoral student from 1983–1986. “Since 1976, you can see the huge number of publications and people who have moved up into high positions in the government and research.”

Welch credits her success as a researcher to the support she received from the T32 grant, both as a trainee and as a faculty member within the department.

“I would never have become an independent researcher without the grant. When I got my Ph.D., it was extremely difficult even for the best investigators to get funded. NIH was in a position where they didn’t have a lot of money, and they certainly didn’t have a lot of money for the things that I wanted to do,” said Welch, whose research focused on combining cannabinoids and opioids to prevent pain without causing addiction. “The training grant allowed me to get supplies and to pay the salaries of students so that I could start building a lab.”

Over the last five decades, the grant has provided more than $24 million in support. However, according to David Compton, Ph.D., the grant also provides something even more valuable – the space and security for trainees to take risks and pursue new avenues of research.

“The training grant got me started, but it also allowed me to not potentially harm my career by putting 100% of my effort into something that could very well fail,” said Compton, whose research was funded by the grant from 1985–1987. “And we knew that failure was a possibility.”

Compton’s early research focused on finding a cannabinoid receptor in the brain, which was a controversial idea at the time. Although another lab would eventually provide conclusive evidence that cannabinoid receptors do indeed exist, Compton developed a receptor-binding assay that he was able to apply to answering other scientific questions and learned about other areas that became important subsequently throughout his career. Compton went on to serve as a faculty member within the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology for more than a decade before joining Huntington Life Sciences, Schering-Plough Research Institute, Sanofi and most recently PTC Therapeutics.

Building a department – and a family

With the success of early trainees like Compton and Welch, the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology built a reputation for being a center of addiction research, delivering on the vision set forth by Harris. The longevity of the training program also has helped build a multigenerational family of scientists.

“When I was in graduate school in Mississippi, VCU – and the pharm-tox department in particular – always had a really strong reputation for having a top-tier drug abuse research program,” said Drew Townsend, Ph.D., who was supported as a post-doc on the training grant from 2017–2019. “Actually, the lab where I conducted my doctoral training was founded by one of the early trainees in the program, Dr. Bill Woolverton. Being supported by the same training grant as my ‘science grandfather’ is a great example of how this T32 has supported multiple generations of scientists.”

Townsend secured an NIH fellowship to continue his post-doctoral training at VCU and is currently applying for an R01 grant in the pursuit of setting up his own lab to study mechanisms of how opioid withdrawal affects decision-making – and train a new generation of students.

“It’s like a circle,” Welch said. “It started with Dr. Dewey getting the grant. And then there was me and a couple of others that were with me as post-docs. Then we stayed and some left and went elsewhere, but everyone has had their own students, and it has just ballooned out.”

For Dewey, that’s the legacy of the training program – “bringing as many scientists into this field as we can.”

“It’s way more than just the science that is important, but it’s the whole issue of improving life for people. I mean, 93,000 people died of opioid overdose in this country last year,” Dewey said. “You never know what the people we educate will contribute. It would be great if one of them developed the drug that stopped addiction.”

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