Cato T. Laurencin, the University Professor and Albert and Wilda Van Dusen Distinguished Endowed Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Connecticut, will receive the 2023 Priestley Medal, the American Chemical Society’s highest honor. He is being recognized for his work on polymeric materials and composites for biological use as well as for his leadership in inclusion, diversity, equity, and antiracism.
While many Priestley Medalists can claim to be polymaths, Laurencin’s wide-ranging skill set stands out. He holds a PhD in biochemical engineering and an MD with a specialty in orthopedic surgery. Using this background, he has become one of the founders of the field of regenerative engineering. He has developed polymeric nanofibers for soft-tissue regeneration as well as polymer-ceramic systems for bone regeneration.
For example, in collaboration with his PhD student James Cooper, Laurencin developed the Laurencin-Cooper Ligament, a braided, biocompatible, and biodegradable implant designed to repair the anterior cruciate ligament, better known as the ACL. Injuries to the ACL, which is in the center of the knee, are common among athletes. The surgically implantable device that Laurencin developed has a 3D matrix that cells attach to. The cells then grow in the direction of the engineered fibers and regenerate the ligament.
Laurencin is “someone who has no difficulty being interested in and absorbing what is needed in a whole range of different topics,” says Harry Allcock, a chemistry professor at the Pennsylvania State University who collaborated with Laurencin on the use of polyphosphazenes for biomedical use. “He can see the fundamental issues involved in the chemistry, and he can very quickly see how this could be used in chemical engineering and then transferred to solving biomedical problems,” Allcock says. “The research that he’s done is extremely important to the biomedical field and I think will have a lasting significance.”
Garnering the Priestley Medal adds to Laurencin’s long list of accolades, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation; the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring; and the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers’ Percy L. Julian Award. He is also a member of all three US National Academies: the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Academy of Medicine.
Robert S. Langer, Laurencin’s PhD mentor and a chemical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that Laurencin has been a leader in the field of regenerative engineering. “As a scientist, he’s done really terrific work,” Langer says, adding that “he’s been a great mentor to so many people.”
Edward Botchwey, a biomedical engineering professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who did his doctoral studies in Laurencin’s lab, says that “inspiring” is the first word that comes to mind when he thinks of Laurencin. “He didn’t make excellence something that felt unattainable, even though he was clearly on a trajectory of achievement at the highest levels,” Botchwey says. “When you come out of his laboratory, you know there are no excuses for the belief that you can’t accomplish something significant in your own career, and I’ll always have him to thank for that.”