Dr. Norma Sue Kenyon Receives Alumni Star Award

Norma Sue Kenyon, Ph.D., has received the Alumni Star award from Virginia Commonwealth University. Kenyon, the University of Miami’s Vice Provost for Innovation and Chief Innovation Officer at the Miller School of Medicine, earned her doctorate from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Medical College of Virginia, which nominated her for its parent institution’s 2015 award program.

The Alumni Stars are honored for their “career and humanitarian achievements, as well as the infinite possibilities they bring to the future.”

“I was genuinely honored to receive the award and enjoyed visiting the faculty, students and the Dean of the medical school, as well as one of my Ph.D. mentors, Dr. Francis Macrina, formerly the Chair of the department in which I got my Ph.D. and now Vice President for Research and Innovation,” said Kenyon.

“The faculty challenged us, in multiple settings, to think on our feet and work through problems, and together with my work in the laboratory of my thesis mentor, Dr. Thallachallour Mohanakumar, prepared me well for a career in translational research. I am grateful for the education and the experience.”

Kenyon, who is also professor of surgery, microbiology and immunology, and holds the Martin Kleinman Chair in Diabetes Research, said her student experience put her on that career path.

“The work I did as a tech in the Tissue Typing Lab in the VCU Department of Surgery led to my strong interest in translational research,” she said. “Intrigued by the fact that the same immune system that protects you from disease is also capable of turning against you in the setting of autoimmunity, transplant rejection and cancer, I focused my career on identifying and assessing approaches to manipulating the immune system to treat disease.”

After receiving her doctorate, Kenyon was awarded two postdoctoral fellowships. One, at the Miller School’s Diabetes Research Institute, focused on Type 1 diabetes and islet cell transplantation, which could reduce or eliminate the need for insulin injections. She also explored research and development in the private sector, but quickly realized that academia was her true home.

When her younger daughter developed Type 1 diabetes at the age of 14 months, it brought Kenyon’s academic and personal interests into perfect alignment. She has continued to focus her research on islet cell transplantation and was the first to demonstrate long-term survival of islets in a clinically relevant model and to demonstrate the graft-promoting effects of mesenchymal stem cells in this same model.

At the Miller School of Medicine, Kenyon’s program in transplant immunology has received sustained National Institutes of Health support, as well as funding from organizations devoted to diabetes research. Knowing how important sponsored funds are to moving research from the bench to the bedside, she established the Wallace H. Coulter Center for Translational Research in 2004 to identify and support research that has the highest commercial potential. The Center has provided slightly more than $3 million in funding across 34 projects, and the supported technologies have obtained more than $77 million in follow-on funding.

“We award gap funding for scientists to do the killer experiments that will convince a venture capitalist or an angel investor,” Kenyon said. “If it’s a good startup, we provide an entrepreneur in residence to help write a business plan and get business funding.”

The process requires a unique mix of scientific training, business acumen and people skills, but Kenyon keeps her eye on the ultimate prize — the cure.

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