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Virginia Commonwealth University receives record $104 million donation for liver research

The gift is the second-largest publicly shared donation at a Virginia university, officials said.

A historic $104 million donation to Virginia Commonwealth University will support liver research at its medical school in Richmond. (Allen Jones/Virginia Commonwealth University)

A new $104 million gift to Virginia Commonwealth University, the largest donation to the school, will be used to further liver research, officials announced Tuesday.

The gift will position the Richmond school as a “global leader” in liver health, VCU leaders said. The money will be used to expand treatment for liver and liver-related metabolic diseases, such as liver cancer and alcohol-related liver illnesses, as well as develop alternatives to transplants.

“The very real fact is that the liver has tremendous bearing on human health, and it has not been the focus like it should be,” Michael Rao, the university’s president, said Tuesday during his State of the University address. “This gift will allow us to bring together top teams to deliver clinical care, to ask critical questions that have not been asked, to develop new tools to explore what causes liver disease, how we stop it, how we prevent it and, hopefully, how we reverse it.”

The gift comes from Richard Todd Stravitz — a physician, liver clinician and former VCU researcher — and his family’s Barbara Brunckhorst Foundation. Stravitz served as the medical director of liver transplantation at VCU Health’s Hume-Lee Transplant Center for a decade before retiring in 2020.

His donation will support the Stravitz-Sanyal Institute for Liver Disease and Metabolic Health housed in the university’s medical school. It will also fund two endowed chairs in the medical school.

As a young doctor, fighting liver disease was a losing battle, Stravitz said. Now, things are different. “We are really in a cusp of tremendous research-oriented advancement in medicine that should allow that persistent high death rate to be brought down,” he said.

Arun J. Sanyal, a VCU medical school professor and liver disease specialist, will serve as the institute’s director. He mentioned Tuesday that liver disease is not covered as much as other ailments in medical school and that there has been stigma around the illness.

“There’s a popular perception that if you have liver disease, you must have done it to yourself. But that’s not true,” Sanyal said. “We know that. This is really a critical time where we need to increase awareness around liver disease.”

The institute was launched in December, but the $104 million donation will allow it to fast track some goals, including investing in gene therapy research, establishing new degree programs and doubling its team of faculty, staff and researchers.

VCU officials said the $104 million gift is the second-largest publicly shared donation at a Virginia university. The University of Virginia announced in 2019 that it had received $120 million from a foundation to support the launch of a school of data science.

The donation to VCU is also the largest publicly shared gift for liver research in U.S. history, said Mary Kate Brogan, a spokeswoman for the university. The former holder of that title was a $25 million gift from the Karsh Family Foundation to support research and treatment of digestive and liver diseases at Cedars-Sinai, Brogan said.

The support for liver research comes during a demand for new treatments — 1 in 10 Americans deal with some type of liver disease and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named it as one of the leading factors contributing to recent drops in life expectancy.

Liver research can also lead to breakthroughs in treating other illnesses, officials said. Liver problems are linked to issues including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, kidney failure and Alzheimer’s.

“The liver impacts the health of all other organs because of its central role in metabolism and how the body uses energy,” Sanyal said in a statement. “When the liver shuts down, all organs suffer.”

Meanwhile, the prevalence of liver-related diseases continues to overwhelm transplant lists — roughly three people died waiting for liver transplants every day in 2021, according to data collected by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The vision for the institute, according to Stravitz, is to make transplant the last resort for patients — “That we were able to identify patients and treat their liver disease well before they needed a liver transplant.”