From the segregated South to eminent scientist, Dr. Cuthbert Simpkins shares his life’s journey

October 31, 2023

From his early life in segregated Shreveport, La., to graduation from Harvard Medical School and surgical residency training, and a professional career as a research scientist for the U.S. Navy, Dr. Cuthbert Simpkins never lost his love for science.

Today, Simpkins is the Sosland Missouri Endowed Chair in Trauma Services with the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine and president and chief innovation officer of Vivacelle Bio Inc. in Kansas City. He shared his life story and experiences with medical students, resident physicians, faculty and staff of the College of Community Health Sciences during a series of lectures Oct. 12-13.

During his lectures, Simpkins talked about growing up in the segregated city of Shreveport and the difficulties he faced due to his parent’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as his career as a trauma surgeon and inventor of life-saving medical techniques. He also discussed his research in treatment for septic shock and severe blood loss on the battlefield.

“I was an intelligent child growing up as my parents were intelligent people, as well,” said Simpkins. “I was interested in science at an early age and wasn’t allowed to go to the library growing up in Shreveport because of the white supremacists. My father would invite college professors to our home and would buy books for me. He would also take me out to different places to collect items that I could look up under the microscope.”

Shreveport turned for the worse for Simpkins and his family causing them to leave for Chicago. Because of his family’s influence, he valued education. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., and graduated from Harvard Medical School in Boston. He completed his general surgery residency at the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Though a skilled and trained surgeon, Simpkins interest in science remained and he spent time shadowing scientists in their laboratories learning to think like a scientist. He found his career as a scientist at the Navy Medical Research Institute focusing on health issues caused by septic shock and blood loss, as well as the study of reanimation after clinical death. With research supported by grants from the institute and the U.S. Army, Simpkins and his colleagues went on to work.

Septic shock is a medical condition that comes from the last stage of sepsis, where an infection in the body causes low blood pressure and organ failure. The Navy and Army were supportive of the research because the infections soldiers sometimes obtained on the battlefield could lead to an increase in mortality rates.

In his research, Simpkins focused on creating on a technology to treat septic shock, dividing the work into three components:

“The question that we were trying to solve is how to reduce nitric oxide without stopping (its) production and all the good things it does,” said Simpkins. “We found out that nitric oxide prefers to be in an oily environment and decided to create this phospholipid nanoparticles fluid made of soybean oil and comprised of micelles and liposomes. The idea was to infuse these nanoparticles into the blood stream, providing a space for the nitric oxide to enter and by doing that the level of nitric oxide would be reduced without stopping its production. The parts of the body (with) too much nitric oxide would be released from the particles and delivered where it needs to be. We change the balance of nitric oxide.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave Simpkins and his colleagues permission to use this fluid, which is called VBI-S (Vivacelle Bio Inc.-Sepsis), in a clinical trial that included 20 patients in the intensive care units of different hospitals. The trial demonstrated that using VBI-S was safe and effective in treating hypovolemia.

Meanwhile, through his company, Vivacelle Bio Inc., Simpkins and colleagues have two products that have been cleared by the FDA for use in clinical trials—VBI-S and VBI-1. Vivacelle Bio is a biotechnology company focused on creating products that utilize patented phospholipid nanoparticle technology to design products that increase the survivability of critically ill patients.

Simpkins and his colleagues are studying the use of VBI-1 for treatment of severe blood loss, which is common in military combat injuries.

“The military was very interested in this study, and we got a grant for the clinical trial,” said Simpkins. “The reason is because the most common preventable mortality on the battlefield is from bleeding very rapidly. By the time you get them to the medical treatment facility, there is nothing you can do.”