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Norbert Voelkel

Norbert Voelkel

Gift creates pulmonary research center.

In 2007, the Department of Internal Medicine at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine recruited Norbert Voelkel, a world leader in pulmonary and vascular physiology and pathophysiology, with an enticing challenge: create the Victoria Johnson Center for Pulmonary Obstructive Lung Diseases Research.

“That was exactly what attracted me,” Voelkel said. “I wanted to have a building job —and that is what I got.”

In little more than one year, Voelkel made good on the offer. He built the center, at the time housed on the seventh floor of Sanger Hall, to focus on airway diseases, such as emphysema, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“Our mission is to figure out what is going on with these diseases so that hopefully we can make a difference in the future when it comes to treatment,” he said.

The center became a reality through the generosity of Ken Johnson of Williamsburg, Va., and his wife, Victoria, who suffered from emphysema.

“Ken was doing a little research as to who was doing the research and why there was not a lot of activity,” Voelkel said. “He thought that putting some money into this area was a good idea.”

The couple’s initial $1 million gift in 2005 allowed their dream of investigation into pulmonary diseases to begin. Sadly, Victoria Johnson died in 2007 as Voelkel’s plans for the center started to take shape. While he continued his work on emphysema research, Voelkel brought existing researchers from the Division of Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Medicine to the center to create more of an integrated lung and heart interaction research center. Other members of the team include Shobha Ghosh, Ph.D.; Berry Fowler, M.D.; Ramesh Natarajan, Ph.D.; Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D.; Herman Bogaard, M.D., Ph.D.; and Lori Sweeney, M.D.

One research focus of the team is pulmonary hypertension, which affects the right ventricle of the heart, occurs mostly in women and has never been studied in a systematic fashion.

“It is now emerging that 70 to 80 percent of patients with severe and oftentimes fatal pulmonary hypertension happen to be women,” Voelkel said. “Nobody has previously said, ‘We’re going to figure out what it is about women getting this disease.’ Nobody has had a hypothesis. We have one.”

Voelkel hopes to add an immunologist to his team in the near future. “It is increasingly clear that chronic lung diseases, particularly ones that are chronic and progressive, all have some kind of participation of the immune system,” he said. “We want to have a highly competitive lung research center that breaks new trails and I think we would miss colossally if we did not include immunology.”

The center has moved to the sixth floor of the newly constructed Molecular Medicine Research Building, tripling its previous research space. The additional room fits in with Voelkel’s five-year plan.

“I’m quite happy with what has been happening,” he says of the past year’s accomplishments, but there is still much work to be done. “I need more impact on clinical and translational research now,” Voelkel said.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, Voelkel feels confident that armed with the Johnson’s gift and his talented team, the Victoria Johnson Center will soon stand as a leader in pulmonary research.

“My ultimate goal is to make a premiere, modern lung research institute that will contribute new ideas and new ways of treating patients with chronic lung diseases.”

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Updated: 06/22/2009