For Cato T. Laurencin, being asked to choose between engineering and orthopedic surgery would be like having to choose which arm to cut off. These twin passions have driven his innovation in biomedical engineering, including many pioneering achievements in tissue regeneration.
Education: BSE, Princeton University, 1980; MD, Harvard Medical School, 1987; PhD, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1987
Current position: Albert and Wilda Van Dusen Distinguished Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, University of Connecticut
Book that made an impact on him: The Bible
Best professional advice he’s received: Dream big (advice from my mom and dad)
As a sports medicine fellow in the early 1990s, Laurencin saw a fair number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). This major knee ligament stabilizes the joint and is a common site of injuries, particularly in athletes. He believed there had to be a better way to address those injuries, and he thought the answer could come from using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. One night, he sketched out a preliminary drawing of how he might do just that.
While a chemical engineering professor at Drexel University from 2001 to 2003, a textile-engineering colleague showed Laurencin two objects that helped with his plan: a flimsy fiber that broke easily and a bar that looked and felt like metal. Both things were made of the same material—one was stronger than the other because it was braided. It dawned on Laurencin that braiding technology could make materials strong and pliable enough to regenerate the ACL.
Laurencin, now at the University of Connecticut, took that inspiration and, along with PhD student James Cooper, developed the patented Laurencin-Cooper Ligament, a surgically implantable, biocompatible, biodegradable 3-D matrix for regenerating the ACL. Once implanted, the device encourages healing. Cells attach to the matrix, grow in the direction of the engineered fibers, and start to regenerate the ligament across the fibers.
Laurencin next turned to regenerating other tissues. His team explored combining polymers and ceramics for musculoskeletal repair in the 1990s and pioneered the use of biocomposites to aid bone and tissue repair.
Laurencin has won the National Medal of Technology and Innovation and has been elected to the National Academies of Engineering and Medicine. Between that aha moment in the textile lab and the crush of accolades that followed, Laurencin has refined the field of tissue engineering with a set of ideas he calls regenerative engineering. These ideas center on integrating tissue engineering with advanced materials science and developmental biology to regenerate complex tissues, organs, and organ systems.
Cedric M. Bright, associate dean for admissions at the Brody School of Medicine, says that in addition to Laurencin’s legion of professional accomplishments, he is best defined by his compassion and caring, particularly when it comes to equity and fairness with colleagues. “He embodies the adage ‘If you want to go far, take somebody with you.’ Cato is a champion of climbing and reaching back.”
For his work mentoring hundreds of students in engineering and medicine and developing initiatives to improve diversity in medicine and science, Laurencin has also received the Herbert W. Nickens Award for promoting justice in medical education and health-care equity.
Laurencin continues to push engineering and medical boundaries in working to regenerate increasingly more complex tissues. Three years ago, his Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering announced the Hartford Engineering a Limb (HEAL) project, which has set the goal of regenerating a human limb by 2030. The team has already regenerated every tissue of the leg.
While this goal strikes many as more science fiction than science, Laurencin points out that growing bone cells and regenerating the ACL also seemed far off at one point. In the HEAL project, as well as his work mentoring students and developing new healing technologies, Laurencin says he’s driven by the desire to help people. “This is at the heart of everything we think about,” he says. “That’s what I’m dedicated to—to improving the human condition.”