Construction starts on CSU research institute named for pioneer in orthopaedic medicine

Colorado State’s newest state-of-the-art research facility will become a reality starting June 2, when the university officially breaks 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 disease.

John and Leslie Malone pose with Maikel at Harmony Sporthorses, December 2, 2014.
John and Leslie Malone contributed the lead gift of $42.5 million to establish the Translational Medicine Institute. Photo: William A. Cotton/Colorado State University

The $65 million facility – called the C. Wayne McIlwraith Translational Medicine Institute – 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 Colorado State University.

McIlwraith, a University Distinguished Professor and founding director of CSU’s Orthopaedic Research Center, is an international pioneer in equine arthroscopic surgery and 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.”

(Read an extended interview with McIlwraith.)

The university on June 2 will host a groundbreaking ceremony on the institute site, off Drake Road north of the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Speakers will include McIlwraith, CSU President Tony Frank, and telecommunications magnate and philanthropist John Malone. Facility completion is expected in late fall 2018.

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 more recently 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.

Princess honors friend with naming gift

Dr. Wayne McIlwraith holding hands with Princess Abigail Kawananakoa as she speaks into a microphone.
Princess Abigail Kawananakoa of Hawaii gave generously and asked that the new research building be named the C. Wayne McIlwraith Translational Medicine Institute in honor of her longtime friend and colleague. Photo: Los Alamitos Race Course

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.

Her $20 million gift was announced in spring 2016 but was credited to an anonymous donor. As institute planning progressed and its name was cemented, Princess Abigail decided to reveal her identity to help draw attention to her friend’s legacy.

“I’ve known Wayne for 30 years, and he has provided the world’s best orthopaedic care for my horses. During this time, I’ve gained insights into the work of the CSU Orthopaedic Research Center and have seen first-hand how its discoveries improve horse health with novel approaches to treatment, prevention, and rehabilitation,” said Princess Abigail, who received an honorary doctorate from CSU in 2016 acknowledging her committed support for science, native Hawaiian culture, and education.

“I am honored to help Wayne and his colleagues deliver new findings that will improve medical care even more broadly for animals and people,” she said.

Ambitious goals in medical innovation

Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, Dr. David Frisbie, and John Malone walking.
Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, left, building namesake, and Dr. David Frisbie, the institute’s interim operations director, attend an equine symposium at Scripps Florida with John Malone, right. Photo: Lila Photo

The university community is grateful for the support of visionary philanthropists who are helping to realize McIlwraith’s ambitious goals in medical innovation, Frank said.

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.

“Wayne is an exceptional educator and researcher, both in the clinical research sense and in the basic research sense. He is a leader of engagement, connecting the university and his field more broadly to donors. And these donors have stepped up and provided tens of millions of dollars to build facilities around Wayne’s vision,” Frank said, when introducing McIlwraith as a recent presenter in the President’s Community Lecture Series.

“Whatever academic currency one would like to trade in – publications, book chapters, invited lectures, awards, recognitions, honorary degrees, success of students, and global impact of work – Dr. McIlwraith is among the leaders in his field,” Frank said.

Veterinary medicine contributes to human health

Translational medicine is possible because animals and humans share many aspects of physiology – and naturally develop strikingly similar diseases over their lifetimes, making veterinary medicine essential in advancing discoveries that improve human health and wellbeing, said Dr. Mark Stetter, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

The C. Wayne McIlwraith Translational Medicine Institute is uniquely positioned for discoveries in translational medicine, as biological therapies present a new therapeutic frontier. The institute will draw on established areas of CSU research expertise in orthopaedics, biomedical engineering, immunology, infectious disease, surgical advances, and other medical fields. As a foundational asset of the Translational Medicine Institute, the Orthopaedic Research Center will retain its focus, staffing, and expansive research portfolio.

The institute will bring together educators and innovators from academia, industry, public agencies, and other entities to pursue development of promising medical technologies, with special attention to those presenting potential for commercialization. Its cutting-edge equipment, research space, clinical resources, and conference areas are designed to support this collaboration among animal and human medical specialists.

Surgical pioneer raised in New Zealand

McIlwraith and his wife posing with Princess Kawananakoa and her honorary doctorate degree from CSU.
McIlwraith and his wife, Nancy, presented Princess Abigail with the diploma for her honorary doctorate from CSU during the 2016 Los Alamitos Two Million Futurity in California. Photo: Los Alamitos Race Course

McIlwraith, who grew up in New Zealand, developed a love of racehorses as a boy, when he snuck off to the track against his mother’s wishes. He spent holidays at a family sheep ranch, and fostered an interest in large-animal medicine while working with cattle, horses, and sheep at the ranch, realizing that a career as a country vet could afford him an ideal outdoor lifestyle.

McIlwraith became an avid mountaineer after entering the University of Otago for pre-veterinary studies, followed by veterinary school at Massey University in New Zealand. He climbed extensively in his home country, led an expedition in South America, and spent a season in the European Alps.

But in 1974, he was offered an internship in large-animal surgery at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. After that, he completed a surgical residency and Ph.D. at Purdue University. What then seemed like a circuitous path now reads like clear route for McIlwraith in the developing field of equine orthopaedic surgery.

After learning to use the arthroscope as a diagnostic tool – the lone veterinarian in a course with 200 medical doctors – he ultimately pioneered techniques in equine arthroscopic surgery and authored a seminal textbook, “Diagnostic and Surgical Arthroscopy in the Horse.” As McIlwraith and others recognized the limitations of arthroscopic surgery, he pursued studies in the causes, prevention, and treatment of orthopaedic injury and osteoarthritis, and founded the Orthopaedic Research Center to advance those investigations.

Colt catches medical world’s attention

UNITED STATES - MAY 04: Horse Racing: Kentucky Derby, Angel Cordero Jr, in action aboard Spend A Buck (9) during race at Churchill Downs, Louisville, KY 5/4/1985 (Photo by Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (SetNumber: X31454)
McIlwraith removed a bone fragment from the knee of Spend A Buck several months before the colt won the Kentucky Derby. Photo: Getty Images

A watershed moment occurred in McIlwraith’s career in spring 1985, when a 3-year-old Thoroughbred colt named Spend A Buck blazed to a win at the Kentucky Derby. Just five months earlier, McIlwraith had traveled to Miami to operate on the horse – using arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone fragment from the colt’s intermediate carpal bone. It took just 10 minutes to perform surgery on Spend A Buck’s knee, yet the procedure had reverberating effects when the horse won the Run for the Roses and convinced many skeptics of the potential for arthroscopic surgery.

The win brought veterinarians, owners, and trainers together, McIlwraith said.

“It is still proclaimed that the biggest advance in human orthopaedics, as well as equine orthopaedics, was the development of arthroscopic surgery,” McIlwraith told a crowd transfixed by the Spend A Buck story during his President’s Community Lecture. “Interestingly enough, people are now proclaiming that the second-biggest advance is biologic therapies.”

Now McIlwraith and his colleagues are anticipating an institute to pursue those therapies – in a building named for him.

“It’s humbling. I’m honored,” McIlwraith said. “Few people get such recognition when they’re mere faculty members. It’s still sinking in.

“I have to admit that I was apprehensive about what people would think, with my name being on it,” he continued. “But the complete support of everybody here, thinking it is appropriate, is probably more touching than actually having my name put on it. That’s really nice, and I’m very excited that we’ve got groundbreaking set. It’s the culmination of what we have built at the Orthopaedic Research Center and reflects the excellence of our team.”

C. Wayne McIlwraith Translational Medicine Institute

Groundbreaking: June 2

Anticipated completion: Late fall 2018

Location: CSU South Campus, between the Diagnostic Medicine Center and the Orthopaedic Research Center

Vision: Innovate medical discovery paradigms and solutions leveraging nature’s healing capacity

Mission: Create novel biologic therapies and learning opportunities uniquely focused on improving the lives of both animals and humans by fostering diverse collaborations of leading scientific minds in a state-of-the-art facility that encourages entrepreneurial models and optimizes innovation timelines.

Construction budget: $65 million

Primary funding sources: John and Leslie Malone, $32.5 million for construction and $10 million for operations; Princess Abigail Kawananakoa, $20 million; with additional contributions from the state of Colorado and Colorado State University.

Interim operations director: Dr. David Frisbie, professor of equine surgery, CSU Department of Clinical Sciences

The C. Wayne McIlwraith Translational Medicine Institute formerly was known as the Institute for Biologic Translational Therapies; its name was simplified to reflect the breadth of its mission.