Translational Medicine Institute launched at Colorado State University

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Mary Guiden

FORT COLLINS — The backdrop of storm clouds added to the atmosphere of import as Colorado State University leaders and philanthropists John and Leslie Malone gathered at the June 2 groundbreaking event for the C. Wayne McIlwraith Translational Medicine Institute.

The project, which required years of planning and record fundraising to reach this point officially took a big step forward today, with the university breaking ground for an institute that promises medical innovations by harnessing the body’s healing powers to help animals and people suffering from a wide range of diseases.

Dr. David Frisbie, the institute’s interim operations director and a CSU professor of equine surgery, hailed the “milestone event” in his opening remarks. As he welcomed those in attendance — some 150 faculty, staff, clinicians and donors — he described the “phenomenal journey” that led to the groundbreaking near the Diagnostic Medicine Center.

“This building will be a central focus of scientific advancement as well as research,” Frisbie said. “The teaching and technology resources will be a beacon to great minds so that they can come together in developing healing technologies for not only people but animals as well.”

The $65 million facility is named for an illustrious veterinarian who has built a remarkable clinical and research enterprise in orthopaedic medicine for horses during nearly 40 years at CSU.

McIlwraith, a University Distinguished Professor and founding director of CSU’s Orthopaedic Research Center, is an international pioneer in equine arthroscopic surgery. He has also pushed the boundaries of research into biological therapies based on living cells and their products, including novel protein and stem-cell therapies that help heal injured and degraded joints. Many of McIlwraith’s findings regarding the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of equine joint injury and disease have been translated into orthopaedic advancements for people – the succession known as “translational medicine.”

Translational medicine

CSU President Tony Frank said the use of the word “translational” is an appropriate and important description of what will take place in the building. “We’ll be moving things from the bench or laboratory into the hospital, from theory to practice, and patients from disease into health,” he said.

The word “transformational” also came up quite a bit in conversations with the lead donors, John and Leslie Malone, according to Frank.

“The idea of changing something completely is a daunting one,” he explained. With this new institute, CSU will completely change “the way we go after disease problems, and the way we put teams together, looking across biology and into engineering. Changing something completely and making efforts this large are heady conversations. They’re not new to the people who had the vision for this building,” said Frank.

John and Leslie Malone provided the transformational lead gift of $42.5 million to establish the research institute, prompted by their interest in the regenerative power of stem-cell therapies for horses and humans. The Malones raise world-class dressage horses and Thoroughbred racehorses; they became intrigued by the concept of the Translational Medicine Institute after their horses at Harmony Sporthorses near Denver were successfully treated with orthopaedic procedures developed by McIlwraith and his CSU colleagues.

John Malone said that he and his wife are fortunate to have the opportunity to support efforts such as the new research institute. “This one, for us, really checked all the boxes: horses, education and research,” he said. He added relentlessness, stem cells, and orthopedics to that mix.

“As you get older, you appreciate stem cells and orthopedics, both in your horses and in your neck, in my case,” he said.

Malone described CSU as a practical, pragmatic place where researchers produce real-world results. He also hailed the man for whom the building is named, Dr. C. Wayne McIlwraith. “If you could extract the source of Wayne’s energy and drive and put it in a bottle, that is an entrepreneurship I’d invest in,” he said.

Meeting McIlwraith and working with him has been one of the highlights of this effort, Malone added.

Adding to the Malones’ gift, Princess Abigail K. Kawananakoa of Hawaii, a direct descendant of the Hawaiian royal family and celebrated breeder of racing American Quarter Horses, donated the institute’s naming gift of $20 million.

McIlwraith has contributed to the success of Princess Abigail’s stable by supporting the orthopaedic health of her racehorses, inspiring her to give generously and to ask that the new facility be named for her longtime friend and colleague.

In his remarks, McIlwraith relayed his heartfelt thanks to the donors and acknowledged them as terrific philanthropists and visionaries.

“Thank you, John and Leslie, for the tremendous gift and partnering in this venture,” he said. “It’s really exciting. Aloha, Abigail. I’m sorry you can’t be with us. Mahalo.”

The renowned surgeon said the idea for the institute was an “evolutionary step” beyond the work being conducted at the Orthopaedic Research Center, and will expand the mission and research focuses to cut a wider swath.

He is still getting used to the idea of having his name on the building.

“It’s an incredible honor,” he said, choking up a bit with emotion. “The thing that’s touched me the most is all the people who’ve commented that it’s deserved or appropriate or they agree with it. It’s humbling. I wasn’t looking for a legacy, but I obviously have a fantastic one.”

University officials estimate that the C. Wayne McIlwraith Translational Medicine Institute will open its doors in late fall 2018.

CSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, home base for the new institute, has a long tradition of creating new knowledge in veterinary medicine that also benefits human health; its achievements in canine cancer and equine orthopaedics are compelling examples.