A Brief History of the Laboratory (ca. Spring 2019)

An orthopaedic research laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania was established in 1960 when Dr. Edgar Ralston was appointed Chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. With a deep and abiding interest in musculoskeletal research at both the clinical and basic science levels, Dr. Ralston appointed Dr. Marvin Steinberg as Acting Director of Orthopaedic Surgery Research in 1964; and beginning in 1965, all orthopaedic residents were required to spend six months in the laboratory.

In 1968, Dr. Carl Brighton became Director of Orthopaedic Surgery Research. At that time, half of the first year residents in Orthopaedic Surgery were required to spend one year in the laboratory to work on a basic science project. The basic science faculty was composed of departmental members as well as faculty from the School of Metallurgy and Material Science. The close cooperation between orthopaedic surgeons and engineers eventually led to the formation of the Department of Bioengineering in 1973, and Dr. Solomon Pollack as its first Chairman in 1977. By this time, basic science research space in Orthopaedics had grown from the original two rooms to eleven different laboratories (e.g., electronics, biomechanics, biomaterials, electron microscopy, biochemistry) scattered throughout the Medical School campus.

A significant event in the history of the lab occurred when Dr. Brighton secured contiguous research space in the new Medical Education Building (now named Stemmler Hall). A major fund raising drive ensued and over $3 million was pledged. Major contributors included Mr. Louis Silverstein ($1.5 million) and the estate of Hulda and George McKay ($450,000). Since a new clinical building was to be named the Silverstein Pavilion, it was decided to name the new orthopaedic research facility The McKay Laboratory of Orthopaedic Surgery Research. Building construction commenced in 1977 and laboratory construction began in June 1978.

On January 10, 1979, the lab officially opened. Thus, for the first time, all of the orthopaedic laboratories were housed in the same physical location.  Because of the success of the research program in the training of academic orthopaedic surgeons, in 1978, it was decided that all orthopaedic residents would be required to spend a full year in the laboratory as part of their five-year residency.  Similarly, Dr. Brighton led efforts to secure a T32 training grant in ‘Orthopaedic Bioengineering’ from the National Institutes of Health to support the integrated training of surgeons, biologists, and engineers, working together to advance fundamental knowledge and translation of new musculoskeletal treatments.

In 1993, Dr. Brighton stepped down as laboratory director and Dr. Charles Clark was appointed as Acting Director of Orthopaedic Surgery Research.  In 1995, Dr. Robert Fitzgerald, Jr. was appointed Chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Soon after, he began a search to recruit a new Director of Orthopaedic Research. In 1997, Dr. Louis Soslowsky joined the University of Pennsylvania from the University of Michigan as Director of the McKay Laboratory.

Over the following 18 years, the McKay Laboratory grew substantially, in terms of faculty, staff, physical space, programs, and extramural funding.  During the initial phase of Dr. Soslowsky’s tenure as McKay Director, he recruited new faculty including Dr. Dawn Elliott, Dr. Steve Nicoll (Bioengineering), Dr. Robert Mauck, and Dr. Ling Qin. This expanded the breadth of research in McKay and continued the close collaboration with the Department of Bioengineering.  New programs were initiated as well; in 1999, the Center for FOP and Related Disorders was founded in the department and housed within the McKay labs, directed by Dr. Fred Kaplan and Dr. Eileen Shore. In 2002, Dr. Soslowsky was named Vice-Chair for Research in Orthopaedic Surgery, and led efforts to establish the Penn Center for Musculoskeletal Disorders in 2005, with support from the National Institutes of Health.  This center drew together musculoskeletal community at Penn, and provided access to new core facilities housed in the McKay Laboratory.  In 2008, Dr. Soslowsky was named the Fairhill Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery. 

In 2009, the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery recruited Dr. Scott Levin as Chairman.  Together, Dr. Soslowsky and Levin raised additional resources for orthopedic research and spearheaded the recruitment of Dr. Sherry Liu, Dr. Lachlan Smith (with Neurosurgery), Dr. George Dodge, and Dr. Foteini Mourkioti, and expanded the laboratory physical space by 50% (to >15,000 square feet).  In 2015, Dr. Levin was re-appointed as Chair of the Department Orthopaedic Surgery, and together with Dr. Soslowsky, worked to further the expansion of McKay Faculty.  In 2015, Dr. Soslowsky was appointed Associate Dean for Research Core Facilities and, in 2017, took on additional roles as the Associate Dean for Research Integration at the Perelman School of Medicine.  With his expanded role across the school, Dr. Soslowsky recruited Dr. Robert Mauck to become Director of the McKay Laboratory, and Dr. Mauck was named the Mary Black Ralston Chair of Orthopaedic Research and Education. 

Working together, Drs. Levin, Soslowsky, and Mauck have continued their efforts to establish and maintain the McKay Laboratory as a premier center for musculoskeletal research. This includes revitalization of the physical space, and expanding funding portfolio, and addition of new faculty and staff. Recent faculty recruits supported by the Perelman School of Medicine and the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery include Dr. Nathaniel Dyment, Dr. Joel Boerckel, and Dr. Kyu Sang Joeng.  The physical space of the McKay Labs has also recently undergone a transformative renovation. Stemmler Hall underwent a >$120M USD renovation (2016-2019), which transformed the building into a modern research space. The McKay Labs now occupy >22,000 square feet of contiguous research space on the 3rd floor of Stemmler Hall, representing one of the largest and most vibrant hubs of musculoskeletal research in country and world.  We celebrated the ‘grand re-opening’ of the McKay Labs at our 40th Anniversary Alumni event, which drew nearly 200 attendees representing the past and present of the McKay labs.

Faculty in the McKay Labs are actively involved in cutting edge basic and translational orthopaedic research; more information on these individuals and their programs can be found here. Currently, there are >120 personnel in the McKay labs, including principal investigators, research staff, administrative support personnel, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows whose expertise spans multiple disciplines, including orthopaedic surgery, genetics, molecular and cell biology, materials science, mechanobiology, tissue engineering, and mechanical and biomedical engineering.  Current research expenditures are >$15M USD annually, and the Laboratory has ranked in the ‘top five’ of orthopaedic research for more than a dozen years.  The McKay Lab hosts the longest running Orthopaedic T32 training grant (now in year 43!) and the P30-funded Penn Center of Musculoskeletal Disorders (now in year 12!).  Additional funding for the McKay Laboratory comes from a variety of sources including the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the International Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva Association, and numerous foundations and institutes. There are also significant private donations and industrial sponsored research and contracts ongoing. 

The goal of our collective work remains the same as when the Laboratory was founded nearly 40 years ago, to carry out the most cutting edge fundamental and translational research in the field of orthopaedics, to train the next generation of scientists and surgeon-scientists, and to improve the health and quality of life of those who suffer from musculoskeletal conditions. 

For more information on the current status of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory, please see the ‘What’s New’ section of our website and follow us at @McKayLaboratory.

*Some of the information contained in this article originally appeared in Brighton, C.T. and Black, J. (1986) The history of the McKay Laboratory of Orthopaedic Surgery Research. Univ. Penn. Orthop. J. 2:10-13.

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