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Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center


The Ralph H. Johnson 25 plus VA Research Club

National Research Week
Friday, May 6, 2011

National Research Week: The Ralph H. Johnson 25+ VA Research Club

Five investigators at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center Research department have studied various illnesses and diseases for more than 25 years.  They brought in more than $1.4 million in VA grant money and over $2.4 million in non-VA research dollars in 2010. 

This year’s VA theme, “Discovery and Collaboration for Exceptional Health Care,” celebrates two crucial elements of VA research: dedicated follow-through on important research findings to optimize medical therapies for Veterans and others; and vital research and care collaborations between VA and academic institutions, other government agencies and health-related industry. 

Unique to the Charleston VAMC is that so many of its researchers are dual-affiliated with the VA and with the Medical University of South Carolina.  Featured are the researchers below.

Dr Mike Zile, 30-yr Researcher:  Heart Failure

On April 1, 2011, Dr. Michael R. Zile, a board certified internist and cardiovascular disease specialist, is the Charles Ezra Daniel Professor of Medicine at MUSC and the Director of the Medical Intensive Care Unit at the Charleston VAMC received his seventh consecutive research grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs. With this grant Zile will have remained continuously grant funded for more than 30 years.

His funding began at the Boston VAMC and has continued at the Charleston VA Medical Center. The fundamental goals of his continuing VA Research Program have been to define the ventricular, myocardial, cellular and molecular mechanisms that cause the development and the progression of Congenital Heart Failure, particularly Diastolic Heart Failure, and then to use these identified mechanisms as targets to improve techniques and therapeutic management of patients with heart failure.

Dr Rita Young, 25-yr Researcher: Oncology

In addition, Dr Rita Young is the Associate Chief of Staff for Research at the Charleston VAMC and Professor of Otolaryngology and Medicine at MUSC.  Young began research with the VA in Hines, Ill., in 1985 with a focus in oncology.  She currently has several ongoing studies related to mechanisms by which tumors suppress anti-tumor immune defenses and developing approaches to overcome this tumor-induced immune dysfunction.  

Young received the Biomedical Laboratory Merit Award for a study that is looking to determine if treatment with hormonally active vitamin D3 increases tumor levels of ceramide to diminish tumor invasiveness.  In addition, she won the Clinical Science Merit Award from the VA to again look at the benefits of Vitamin D plus other therapies to stimulate immune reactivity in oral cancers.

Dr Maria Lopes-Virella, 25-yr Researcher: Diabetes

Another researcher with dual appointments to MUSC and the VA is Dr. Maria Lopes-Virella, who began her medical training at the School of Medicine at the University of Lisbon in Portugal’s capital.  A 2006 recipient of the VA’s Henry Middleton Award for Excellence in Research, for more than 20 years, Lopes-Virella has studied lipoproteins and hardening of the arteries and the relationship between lipoprotein metabolism and diabetes.  She is currently the Professor of Immunology and Microbiology at MUSC and the Director of the Nutrition Support Team at the Charleston VAMC. 

She is focusing on non-classical risk factors for cardiovascular disease in type 2 diabetes mainly targeting risk factors predictive of acute vascular events.  Her other research interests are in how modified low-density lipoproteins are biomarkers for the progression of Type 1 diabetes. Lopes-Virella is a fellow of the American Heart Association and of the National Lipid Association and she is a member of the American Diabetes Association, Endocrine Society and Southern Society for Clinical Investigation. She was one of the founding members of the National Lipid Association, served on the boards of the National Lipid Association until 2010 and she is presently serving on the American Board of Clinical Lipidology.

Dr George Cooper, 25-year Researcher: Cardiology

Dr. George Cooper, IV, is a Distinguished University Professor at MUSC and Professor of Medicine in Pediatrics and Physiology.  He is also the Chief of Cardiology at the Charleston VAMC and Director of the Gazes Cardiac Research Institute.  Cooper, a graduate of Cornell University Medical College in New York, began his VA research in 1985. 

His research program goal is to define the causes and consequences of cardiac hypertrophy.  Cooper’s current work with the VA is through the VA Merit Review Award for Connexin Distribution in Physiological Versus Pathological Cardiac Hypertrophy.

 Dr. Howard Becker, 25-year Researcher: Alcohol Abuse

Dr. Howard Becker received his PhD from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. and completed his postdoctoral work at MUSC, where he is now a Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Neurosciences.  Becker is also a Medical Research Career Scientist for the Charleston VAMC, where his research focuses on therapeutic targets for treating ethanol dependence and harmful drinking associated with alcoholism.  He has been continuously funded for 25 years for research on alcohol withdrawal, abstinence and psychopharmacological issues.


Becker’s ongoing research through the VA Merit Award program studies ethanol dependence and the escalation of drinking.  The goal is to provide new and valuable information to aid in developing more effective treatments for Veterans suffering from alcohol dependence.



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