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Record donation should make VCU a world leader in diagnosing and treating liver disease

Dr. Dr. Arun Sanyal (left) and Dr. Todd Stravitz (right).
Virginia Commonwealth University
Dr. Dr. Arun Sanyal (left) and Dr. Todd Stravitz (right).

In 1905, Frank Brunckhorst founded Boar’s Head– delivering deli meats and cheeses by horse-drawn carriage. Today, the Brunkhorst’s family foundation is worth millions, and the founder’s great grandson is a doctor at VCU. When Todd Stravitz first arrived there more than 30 years ago, the medical school was pioneering diagnosis and treatment of liver disease.

“When liver research started it was really in the 1970’s, and before that the liver was largely a black box," he recalls. "We have come a tremendous way in 50 years. We’ve learned how to diagnose and treat liver diseases. Hepatitis-C, for example, is 100% curable."

Now, he says, scientists are on the cusp of another big breakthrough.

“Gene therapy is going to be something that we will be able to offer patients with several more years of research," Dr. Stravitz explains.

He persuaded his family’s foundation to donate $104 million to establish the new Institute for Liver Disease and Metabolic Health. Its director – Dr. Arun Sanyal.

“There is actually an under-appreciation of the liver as a central organ that determines how all other organs in the body utilize energy,” he states.

And in this age of too much saturated fat and sugar, too little fiber and exercise, Sanyal notes our livers are in trouble.

“One out of three adults in North America has excess fat in the liver.”

That puts them at increased risk for diabetes, stroke, heart, kidney and Alzheimer’s disease. That’s why he says liver problems are a factor in the nation’s declining life expectancy.

“We know that people between the ages of 18 and 60 have declining life expectancy, and yes it is due to opioids. Yes it is due to violence and trauma and suicides, but liver disease is also there.”

The new institute should position VCU as a world leader in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of liver disease.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief