Author: Cato T. Laurencin, M.D., Ph.D.

Institute for Regenerative Engineering Receives Another NIH Research Award

I am very happy to report that we just received research award for our recent NIH/R21 exploratory/developmental research grant application to develop next generation bone grafts. The innovation of the proposal is the use of calcium peroxide combined with polymeric matrices for engineering bone tissue. The co-investigators team includes Dr. Yusuf Khan and Dr. Kevin Lo from the Institute for Regenerative Engineering. Also, I would like to highlight my outstanding fellow, Dr. Bret D. Ulery, for his tireless effort putting together this grant application. I also thank NIH for their long-term support on our research program at the institute.

The Hartford Public School’s 21st Annual Citywide Science Fair: Keynote Speech

In late May, I had the privilege to give a talk entitled “Moving Forward with Science” to future scientists from kindergarten to high school at the Connecticut Science Center. This year, student science projects from 31 Hartford city schools participated and the science fair was held at Annie Fisher School in Hartford, CT. The best science projects, as determined by more than 100 judges including five volunteers from the Institute for Regenerative Engineering, were honored at a special awards ceremony at the Connecticut Science Center.

One of my career missions is to ensure that young people in our community have mentors and to encourage them to pursue medicine and science for their careers. Our Institute at UConn provides high school students and college students with research opportunities in our biomedical science laboratories. Each summer, we recruit students who are interested in medicine, dental medicine or biomedical research to participate in our research program. Through extensive training, students acquire knowledge on how science is conducted and where science is heading in the future. As a mentor for many of these young people, it is a real pleasure for me to see them grow to become scientists or physicians one day.

Featured Fellow at the Institute for Regenerative Engineering: Dr. Meng Deng

Biomaterials CongressDr. Meng DengDr. Meng Deng received a B.S. in Chemical Engineering in 2004 from the very prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing and his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering in 2010 from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. He completed his doctoral thesis in biomaterials and tissue engineering under my mentorship at the University of Virginia. His Ph.D. project was focused on the design and development of novel biomaterials and matrices for bone regeneration based on a highly versatile platform of biocompatible polyphosphazene blends. He also worked on developing mechanically competent bioresorbable nanostructured three-dimensional biomimetic scaffolds for accelerated bone healing. Meng was an extraordinary Ph.D. Student and received He was the recipient of the Special Recognition Award for Academic Achievement from the Department of Chemical Engineering, and the Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award for the Department of Chemical Engineering from the University of Virginia. In 2008, the People’s Republic China awarded Dr. Deng the China Government Award for Outstanding Students Abroad. After completing his Ph.D. in 2010 he has been a Postdoctoral Fellow working on regenerative engineering of complex musculoskeletal tissues using integrated graft systems under my guidance in the Institute for Regenerative Engineering at the University of Connecticut Health Center. His research interests include biomaterials, drug delivery, nanotechnology, and regenerative engineering.

Dr. Meng Deng and Dr. Cato LaurencinDr. Deng is an outstanding researcher in the institute. He has published more than 20 research articles in high impact journals like Biomaterials, Advanced Functional Materials, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His research work has been highlighted on journal covers several times. He was also recognized for his research work. For instance, in 2010, he received STAR award from the Society for Biomaterials in Seattle, WA. Last month, he won a Young Scientist Award from the World Biomaterials Congress 2012 and traveled to Chengdu China to receive this great honor. As a mentor for Dr. Deng, I am so proud when I see he is being recognized for his great achievements.

Honored to Work with the Wellcome Trust

Professor Maria Marlow of the Department of Pharmacy, University of Nottingham with Dr. Cato LaurencinLast month, I had the honor to be asked to travel to London as part of an international review panel for the Wellcome Trust. The Trust is a worldwide charitable organization dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It was great to be able to see the extraordinary research being performed by scientists in the UK.

During the meeting, I was reunited with Professor Maria Marlow of the Department of Pharmacy, University of Nottingham. Maria was one of my first postdoctoral fellows, joining my research group soon after we formed it at M.I.T. in the early 1990s. It is always a great pleasure to see my fellows who are now noted professors in academia all over the world.

FDA Commissioner Health Disparities Lectureship

FDA Commissioner Health Disparities LectureshipAs many of you know, one of my missions is to help reduce or even eliminate the health disparities of underserved populations in the United States. Health disparities represent a major public health emergency in our country and eliminating them is a major challenge.

During my term on the National Science Board of the FDA, I advocated for the establishment of an Office of Minority Health for the FDA. I am proud that Congress moved forward with this initiative and established the Office of Minority Health. On its first anniversary, the FDA invited me back to provide an address on ways in which race, culture and ethnicitiy should be considered in adopting regulatory policies and actions. I gave my talk last month as part of the first “FDA Commissioner Health Disparities Lectureship,” and I was grateful to share the podium with Professor George King from Harvard. I applaud the leadership of the FDA, especially Dr. Michelle Yeboah (Director of the Office) , and the leadership of HHS, especially Dr. Nadine Gracia (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Minority Health) for their work in the elimination of Health Disparities.

10th Annual Alvin H. Crawford Mentoring Award

In late February, I was truly honored and delighted to receive the Alvin Crawford Mentoring Award presented by the J. Robert Gladden Orthopaedic Society (JRGOS). The Mentoring Award recognizes excellence in promoting diversity and mentoring in orthopaedic surgery. Over the years, I have been fortunate to receive recognition for my mentorship including the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mentoring Award presented by President Obama at the White House in 2010 and the 2011 Biomedical Engineering Society’s Diversity Award.

I would like to personally thank my current and former students, postdoctoral fellows, and residents. Their curiosity and enthusiasm keep me vibrant.

Professor Kevin Lo Joins the Faculty of the Institute for Regenerative Engineering

I am very pleased to announce that Dr. Kevin Wai Hong Lo, a postdoctoral fellow in our lab, has been appointed as Assistant Professor in the Institute for Regenerative Engineering. Dr. Lo will also have a faculty appointment in the Department of Medicine. After earning his B.S., M.Phil., and Ph.D. from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Dr. Lo joined Laurencin Labs. Over time, he has become an extremely accomplished researcher with interests which include drug delivery, tissue engineering, and bone cell signaling. Speaking for all the Institute faculty, we are excited to have him join us, and we look forward to working with our newest faculty colleague.

The Urban Education Institute Speech

The Woolworths in Greensboro, site of the first sit in.
The Woolworths in Greensboro, site of the first sit in.

The Urban Education Institute invited me to join them in late March at North Carolina State A&T State University in Greensboro, NC. For those who may not know, the Institute is a meeting space for individuals and groups to examine critical issues that impact learners in urban contexts, share methods and approaches they utilize to address these issues, and brainstorm concrete steps to move forward as a critical mass of colleagues and collaborators. This year’s theme was “African American Males in the STEM Professions: Strategies, Practices, Exemplars.”

I led a session entitled “Preparing for Surgery.” It focused on challenges and barriers encountered by minority males, particularly African Americans, when they pursue careers in medicine. During the discussion, I shared my own experience as an African American physician in America, emphasizing the importance of mentoring, the prerequisite knowledge and skills, and academic programming that are important in the medical profession. In addition, I offered recommendations for concrete strategies and practices that I have used at public schools, universities, and in the community to encourage more minority males to pursue careers in medicine.

I saw an awesome group of African American scientists including one of my mentors, Dr. Louis Sullivan, and the legendary Dr. John Slaughter. I also had the opportunity to interact with Dr. James Stith, a physicist who has played an important role in increasing the role of African Americans in the physical sciences. He gave an incredible talk to the group, and I connected with everything he said. I look forward to collaborating with him in the future.

The Woolworth counter in Greensboro, that was the site of the origin of the sit in movement.
The Woolworth counter in Greensboro, that was the site of the origin of the sit in movement.

During my time in Greensboro, I visited the Woolworth’s where, in 1960, four male students sat down at the “whites only” lunch counter and ordered coffee. When they were refused service, they stayed until closing in nonviolent protest. The next day, another 20 students joined them, and by the fourth day, the number rose to 300, and organizers agreed to spread their nonviolent sit-in to the lunch counter at Greensboro’s Kress store. Within a week, students in other North Carolina towns launched their own sit-ins, and the movement spread throughout the South. On July 25, local store owners abandoned their segregation policies and a day later, the entire Woolworth’s chain was desegregated, serving blacks and whites alike.

I came away from my visit thankful for all those in the past whose actions have allowed me to be here, as well as those present-day mentors who sustain me now. Moreover, I reaffirm my pledge to give back by influencing the generations to come.

Prominent African-Americans “Poised to Make a Big Difference in the United States and the World”

In honor of Black History Month, MSNBC compiled a list of black leaders in the arts, science, technology, politics, and other areas. I was honored to be included in this group of men and women, particularly since the article included words from Dr. Cedric Bright, an outstanding leader and President of the National Medical Association.

I have always taken pride in my desire to promote excellence in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and medicine. My sincerest hope is that, throughout my career, I will continue to inspire all those who wish to follow my philosophy of “big vision, big life.”

Featured M.D./Ph.D. Student at the Institute for Regenerative Engineering: Shaun W. McLaughlin

Shaun W. McLaughlinShaun is a third-year M.D./Ph.D. student doing his Ph.D. thesis in my laboratory at the Institute for Regenerative Engineering. Prior to coming to UConn, Shaun worked with me at the University of Virginia where his main research focus was using hydrogels to delivery bioactive molecules that aid in bone regeneration. He also has worked in the private sector conducting novel bio-implant and tissue engineering research. Specifically his research focused on the development of an artificial ACL ligament using three-dimensional braided microfibers as well as osteo-differentiation using a laser-guided surface-etching technique on titanium implants.

Since entering his Ph.D. phase at UConn, he has been shifting his research focus to skeletal muscle regenerative engineering. “I’m very interested in using a progenitor cell located in skeletal muscle known as the satellite stem cell to aid in regeneration of skeletal muscle. I hope that, by providing a scaffold that can aid in cellular alignment and differentiation of skeletal muscle stem cells, I’ll accomplish this goal.” The scaffold he uses in his research will be fabricated using a technique known as electrospinning. I was one of the pioneers of implementing electrospinning for tissue engineering. By modifying this technique, he will generate highly aligned (parallel) nanofibers which provide cues for satellite cells to undergo alignment and subsequent fusion into more mature myotubes which is necessary for adult skeletal muscle formation.

I am very proud to have Shaun as a student. He is an ambitious young man who wants to enter the fields of Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering, much as I have. His ultimate goal is to become a physician-scientist, setting up his own research laboratory. He hopes to develop state-of-the-art biomaterials and implant them into patients. Outside of the laboratory and classroom, Shaun enjoys triathlons, playing ice hockey, mountain climbing, and anything outdoors.