Student aiming to improve radiation therapy earns prestigious fellowship award

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Reed McDonagh researching in lab

Most people will never use everything they learned in school. For instance, the Pythagorean theorem just never seems to find its way into daily life.

But when it comes to his research, Virginia Commonwealth University student Reed McDonagh is not most people. A student at the VCU School of Medicine earning his M.D., McDonagh is also pursuing his Ph.D. with a concentration in cancer and molecular medicine at the VCU Center for Clinical and Transitional Research.

McDonagh is deep into research for a possible preventive defense against the long-term side effects — such as anemia, gastrointestinal distress and even secondary cancer — that radiation therapy has on millions of cancer patients. His research focuses on the usage of cerium oxide nanoparticles made of the rare-earth element cerium as a shield against radiation for the normal tissue surrounding the cancerous tumor.

For such significant possible advancements in oncology, he was granted the prestigious National Research Service Award by the National Cancer Institute under the National Institutes of Health. The $69,774 grant over two years will support his ongoing research, including a greater knowledge about CONPs and their effect on both cancerous and non-cancerous tissue.

“The most exciting aspect of my research is that it is truly multidisciplinary and collaborative, involving physics, chemistry, biology, pharmacology and a clinical application,” he said. “It is exciting to me that I have had to rely on all of my studies and training from college and medical/graduate school, knowing I am uniquely prepared to take on this project.

“I believe the future of medical research will come from a truly multidisciplinary approach, which is embodied in this project and in the developing field of nanotechnology.”

This strongly collaborative project is conducted with help from the VCU Center for Molecular Imaging under Jamal Zweit, Ph.D., D.Sc.; the VCU Massey Cancer Center's Radiation Biology labs under Ross Mikkelsen, Ph.D.; and Sudipta Seal, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Central Florida who also works on CONP research.

This invaluable idea of interdisciplinary cooperation is not new to McDonagh, who has witnessed it since his time at VCU began. The focus of his research has been set largely on collaboration between groups such as the Schools of Medicine, Engineering, Nursing and Pharmacy, the College of Humanities and Sciences, and VCU Life Sciences.

“In working all over both campuses I have yet to find a student, staff or faculty member who was not extremely open to collaboration and helping the development of my project. That is the culture that I most enjoy about VCU, where the goal is to find the best and most efficient way to do research by working together,” McDonagh said.