VCU receives $18.1 million grant to study novel tobacco products

One of 14 major institutions selected for federal research program

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Virginia Commonwealth University has received an $18.1 million federal grant – VCU’s third largest to date – to study so-called modified risk tobacco products and other novel tobacco products, such as electronic cigarettes, and to develop an evaluation tool to help inform United States tobacco regulatory policy.

VCU is among 14 institutions across the country selected to participate in a regulatory science research program that will provide vital scientific evidence to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health.

Researchers in the VCU Department of Psychology’s Center for the Study of Tobacco Products in the College of Humanities and Sciences will study methods for evaluating modified risk tobacco products, or MRTPs, as one of 14 Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science, a new program launched by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health.

The VCU research group will develop and test a multidisciplinary approach that uses engineering, clinical behavioral research and randomized control trials to study the effects of novel tobacco products. The information learned from this research will help implement the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which gave the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate the manufacture, distribution and marketing of tobacco products to protect public health.

“This historic grant signifies that Virginia Commonwealth University is a national leader in our unique commitment to human health,” said Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU and VCU Health System. “It is the result of the multidisciplinary collaborative spirit that is ubiquitous at VCU and the VCU Health System, and it serves to remind us that our focus is really on people.” 

Thomas Eissenberg, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of VCU's Clinical Behavioral Pharmacology Laboratory, and Robert Balster, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the VCU School of Medicine, are the co-principal investigators on the grant.

The project will span both campuses of VCU involving the College of Humanities and Sciences, the Massey Cancer Center and the School of Medicine. As part of the project, Eissenberg and Balster will collaborate with Massey Cancer Center’s Cancer Prevention and Control research program. Other VCU faculty leading portions of the research effort include Alison Breland, Ph.D.; Randy Koch, Ph.D.; Aashir Nasim, Ph.D.; and Michael Weaver, M.D.

“For the first time, under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, the federal government, through the FDA Center for Tobacco Products, is able to bring science-based regulation to the manufacturing, marketing and distribution of tobacco products,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.  “The FDA is committed to a science-based approach that addresses the complex public health issues raised by tobacco product regulation.”

The multi-year grant to VCU will involve four components — examination of factors that influence MRTP nicotine and toxicant yield; comparison of short-term effects of MRTP to other products; a randomized control trial; and MRTP use and misuse on user’s attitudes, beliefs and perceived effects.

"While the focus of the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products is on novel tobacco products generally, this grant will also allow us to provide a wealth of information regarding electronic cigarettes and is designed to have the flexibility and capacity to begin new research to address issues raised in today’s rapidly evolving tobacco marketplace,” Eissenberg said.

“I am especially pleased that one of the missions of the new center is to develop training programs for a new generation of tobacco regulatory scientists,” Balster said. “Support is provided for both graduate students in behavioral and biomedical sciences as well as for post-doctoral research fellows.” 

VCU’s center is part of a network of Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science that includes Yale, Ohio State, the University of North Carolina and the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. The program will be coordinated by the National Institutes of Health Tobacco Regulatory Science Program. The VCU grant that forms the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products includes two partner institutions: Penn State-Hershey, with Jonathan Foulds, Ph.D., and the American University of Beirut, with Alan Shihadeh, Sc.D.

This is the third large grant that VCU has received in the past few years. Last month, VCU received the largest grant in its history -- a $62 million federal grant to lead a study of traumatic brain injuries in military personnel. And in 2010, the NIH awarded VCU a $20 million grant to become part of a nationwide consortium of research institutions working to turn laboratory discoveries into treatments for patients.