Published on December 14, 2022 by Frank Ruggiero  
Patty Jumbo Robert Wang
McWhorter School of Pharmacy faculty members Patricia Jumbo-Lucioni and X. Robert Wang are conducting groundbreaking research into the treatment of major diseases.

McWhorter School of Pharmacy faculty are known to change lives, guiding and mentoring students throughout their Samford careers and beyond. 

In the case of associate professor Patricia Jumbo-Lucioni and professor X. Robert Wang, that involves groundbreaking research into the treatment of major diseases, which could affect millions of lives across the globe.

Jumbo-Lucioni uses fruit flies as research models in her efforts to develop effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, while Wang is applying two decades’ worth of research toward fighting cystic fibrosis. And both have students to thank for contributing to their respective endeavors.

“This research has significant implications for future treatments in Alzheimer’s disease and cystic fibrosis,” said Michael Crouch, dean and professor at McWhorter School of Pharmacy. “Drs. Jumbo-Lucioni and Wang are research leaders in the school, and they also serve as outstanding exemplars for our Doctor of Pharmacy students interested in research careers.”

“Science is my passion,” Jumbo-Lucioni said. “When I get to share that with students and see their excitement when presenting research, that’s it for me.”

The fact that their research could save and improve lives? “It’s a blessing,” she said.

Jumbo-Lucioni’s research employs fruit flies genetically modified to resemble the human phenotype for Alzheimer’s disease, thereby expressing symptoms. And since fruit flies only live around 40 to 50 days, lifespan experiments can be conducted in a much shorter time frame. 

She found that lisinopril, an FDA-approved hypertension drug, mitigated the decline in movement and memory in her fly model of Alzheimer’s disease. This led to collaboration with faculty at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and the University of Florida, the latter of which developed a probiotic genetically modified to produce a protein with anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties. Their work was awarded funding from the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the UAB Nathan Shock Center for Excellence in the Biology of Aging.

Jumbo-Lucioni brought the probiotic to her Samford lab and tested it with her flies. The results were eye-opening.

“Flies that were fed the probiotic performed better in terms of learning and memory,” she said. “We later tested motor function … and it also improved. We’ve been approaching this disorder by just focusing on the brain. Here, we’re targeting the gut to impact the brain. Findings in our flies can then be translated into larger organisms.”

The help she’s received from students has been instrumental, and some have even co-authored publications with her, such as recent graduates Jimiece Thomas, Pharm.D. ’21; Aaron Smith, Pharm.D. ’22; and Haddon Smith, Pharm.D. ’22.

“My students become very independent and passionate about their research projects,” Jumbo-Lucioni said. “I’m very proud of how fast they’ve learned.”

As is Wang, whose former student, Adam Ambrosetti, Pharm.D. ’18, helped uncover a major development in researching cystic fibrosis treatment. 

Before joining Samford’s pharmacy faculty in 2012, Wang had already devoted 10 years toward treating the disease, targeting the root cause over the symptoms. He’s since garnered research grants from NIH and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, funding he’s used to study new compounds to treat the cause and yield fewer patient side effects.

Ambrosetti had been studying B6, an anti-cancer agent developed by retired Samford professor Bobby Riggs. When Wang thought to combine B6 with an FDA-approved drug, they found that the drug’s efficacy doubled. 

“Since then, we’ve looked at derivatives of that compound to see how they work with currently FDA-approved drugs,” Wang said. “The idea is to see if we can find an enhancer for existing drugs to increase their efficacy.”

Research on the subject is ongoing. Meanwhile, Wang continues to aid in students’ educational and professional development, even offering guidance in grant writing.

“Our students have many career directions when they graduate,” Wang said. “Aside from community and hospital pharmacy, some go into research, industry or academia. Given that Samford is first in the nation for student engagement, this is a great opportunity to engage them."

This story is included as a feature in the fall 2022 issue of Seasons magazine. Enjoy the complete issue here

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.