By Mary Guiden, Communications Coordinator, Coleman Cornelius, Director of Communications and Dell Rae Ciaravola, Senior Media and Community Relations Coordinator  

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, Dr. C. Wayne McIlwraith, who has built a remarkable clinical and research enterprise in orthopaedic medicine for horses during nearly 40 years at CSU.

“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,” CSU President Tony 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.

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.”

Veterinary Medicine Contributes to Human Health

President 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.

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.

Major Donors

John and Leslie Malone pose with Maikel at Harmony Sporthorses, December 2, 2014

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.

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.

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.”

Surgical Pioneer Raised in New Zealand

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

On May 4, 1985, Spend a Buck won the Kentucky Derby in wire-to-wire fashion, coming home 5 1/4 lengths in front of the second place horse in a final time of 2:00 1/5, the fourth fastest Derby win ever. He went on to become 1985’s Horse of the Year and Champion 3-year-old Colt.

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.”

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