VCU Receives $104 Million Donation to Support New Liver Health Institute | Education

Virginia Commonwealth University has received a $104 million pledge to support its new Liver Health Institute. It is the largest individual donation in the history of the university.

Dr. R. Todd Stravitz, former director of liver transplantation — and grandson of the founder of the Boar’s Head deli company — will make the donation. Liver disease specialist Dr. Arun Sanyal will lead the initiative.

The university will call it the Stravitz-Sanyal Institute for Liver Disease and Metabolic Health at VCU, and its work will include research, education, and clinical care.

VCU President Michael Rao called it “a tectonic shift in VCU’s journey”.

The money comes from the Barbara Brunckhorst Foundation, a charitable fund established in 1969 by Frank Brunckhorst, the founder of Boar’s Head. Stravitz’s mother, Barbara Brunckhorst, died in 2020 and left her estate to the foundation.

Stravitz has worked at VCU Health for about 30 years and says his liver research is among the best in the country.

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He originally committed $50 million plus an additional $4 million to staff two president positions. Then he added another $5 million a year for 10 years, for a total of $104 million, paid over 13 years.

It is the second-largest donation ever publicly shared for a Virginia college, VCU said. In 2019, the University of Virginia received $120 million to establish a data science school.

Stravitz, 61, retired in 2020 to care for his mother but intends to return part-time.

“I miss clinical medicine,” he said.

The donation will expand VCU’s ability to study data analysis related to liver health; bacteria in the intestine and its impact on the body; liver imaging; gene editing in liver cells and patient health globally. VCU announced the launch of the institute in December.

Liver disease accounts for about 2% of deaths in the United States, making it roughly the 10th leading cause of death. That’s a growing number, Sanyal said, as alcohol consumption has increased during the pandemic.

But it’s a misconception that alcoholism is the only cause, he says. Obesity and diabetes are also contributing factors, and some of them are unexplainable. When excess fat builds up in the liver, it can cause scarring, cirrhosis, and cancer.

By the time a patient has cirrhosis, there aren’t many treatment options. These patients often spend a long time in hospital and rack up big bills, but struggle to prolong their lives. Liver transplants are the most common remedy, but transplants are “not a public health solution”, Sanyal said.

There were more than 9,000 liver transplants in the United States in 2021, according to the Richmond-based United Network for Organ Sharing. But more and more people are waiting for transplants, and many never receive them. The number of people with liver disease is expected to increase, while the number of available organs will remain relatively stable.

“Liver disease is becoming an important public health problem,” Sanyal said.

Liver disease research is poised to make huge strides, Stravitz said. The institute will focus on liver disease as a public health issue, the role of the liver in body metabolism, and the professional development of liver researchers. And it will bring together researchers from many departments, including transplant surgery, hepatology, microbiology, pharmacology and addiction medicine.

It is undetermined whether the institute will get a new building; eventually, it will have its own dedicated space. Current staff are located in a number of different buildings on the MCV campus.

Sanyal plans to hire 30 to 60 new employees, more than doubling the existing workforce.

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