Regenerative medicine and unlocking stem cell biology will open many doors toward treating patients with orthopedic problems (and hopefully, one day, help patients avoid invasive surgeries). Philanthropy is pivotal in helping fund some of the important projects that sometimes cannot be funded through the NIH or other sources.
As a surgeon and a scientist, I see the field of regenerative medicine as extremely exciting because we are on the cusp of understanding stem cell biology. We are getting a window into how Mother Nature regenerates. It’s exciting because we have possibly unlocked certain mysteries of how cells differentiate into specific types of tissue. And once we understand it better—through basic hard work and science—we can steer those cells to do what we want them to do, which will help people avoid complicated and painful surgeries.
In orthopedic surgery we deal with things like broken body parts, muscle defects, spinal issues, bone fractures. Much of what we do is reconstructive surgery. If you tear your ACL, we can replace the torn ligament with a piece of tendon from another part of the knee. If you have spinal stenosis, we can do a spinal fusion. If your hips or knees are terribly arthritic, we can replace them. This is the current convention, and it gives many people tremendous relief from pain and suffering. But the next frontier should be not reconstruction, but regeneration. With the right amount of research, we will be able to regenerate cartilage, bones, tendons, muscle.
The field of regenerative medicine is evolving, and many institutions are looking at it, including Brigham. We aim to be one of the innovators and leaders in this field. Within our department’s vision is to launch a premier center for regenerative medicine, and we are in the process of recruiting a new director to spearhead the program.
Philanthropy is enormously helpful in these massive endeavors. Researchers are constantly endeavoring to get grants through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is our main vehicle for funding. But only about 10-15 percent of grants submitted actually get funded. Philanthropy is a way to bridge the gap so that scientists can do their research without having to constantly watch grant funding, having to let people go, and interrupting their studies.
DR. JAMES KANG, chairman of the department of orthopedic surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston, specializes in spinal surgery. As a surgeon/clinician/scientist, he is an internationally recognized leader in intervertebral disc degeneration research, having done pioneering work in the biology and molecular mechanisms of disc degeneration, as well as devising novel therapeutic interventions using stem cells and gene therapy.