Joseph P. Vacanti, MD, FACS, received the 2015 Jacobson Innovation Award of the American College of Surgeons (ACS) at a dinner on June 5 at the John B. Murphy Memorial Auditorium in Chicago, IL. Dr. Vacanti is the John Homans Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School and is the director of the Laboratory for Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication, co-director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine, and chief of pediatric transplantation at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.
The prestigious Jacobson Innovation Award honors living surgeons who have been innovators of a new development or technique in any field of surgery and is made possible through a gift from Julius H. Jacobson II, MD, FACS, and his wife, Joan. Dr. Jacobson is a general vascular surgeon known for his pioneering work in microsurgery.
Honored for tissue engineering
This year’s Jacobson Innovation Award honors Dr. Vacanti for his work in the field of tissue engineering, which began in the early 1980s and stemmed from a long-held interest in addressing organ shortages. Working with Robert Langer, ScD, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Dr. Vacanti developed an approach using tissue-specific cells placed in scaffolds made of biodegradable polymers. The cells, derived from both living tissue or stem cells, are then bathed in growth factors and proceed to multiply, filling the scaffold. The cells then grow into three-dimensional tissue that, once implanted in the body, recreates its proper tissue function. Blood vessels grow into the new tissue, the scaffold degrades, and the lab-grown tissue becomes indistinguishable from its surroundings.
Dr. Vacanti also has been an innovator in pediatric surgery. In 1984, while at Children’s Hospital Boston, Dr. Vacanti instituted New England’s first successful pediatric extracorporeal membrane oxygenation program. In addition, he started the nation’s first liver transplantation program specifically for the pediatric population.
Dr. Vacanti was a founding co-president of the Tissue Engineering Society, now the Tissue Engineering Regenerative Medicine International Society (TERMIS) and which boasts 5,000 active members from 80 countries worldwide. He was also the founding senior editor of the journal Tissue Engineering, which serves the members of TERMIS. The journal can be found in 1,700 libraries in 20 countries and is provided free online to 106 developing countries.
Dr. Vacanti has authored more than 320 original reports, 69 book chapters, 54 reviews, and 473 abstracts. He has 81 patents or patents pending in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Japan.
“As I stand here tonight, I ask myself: ‘How did a Sicilian-American kid from Omaha, Nebraska, end up on this podium?’” Dr. Vacanti said to the approximately 100 guests at the dinner. “My answer is my family, my friends, and my heroes. Just like everyone in this room, we are descendants of immigrants. In my case, my grandparents emigrated from Sicily because of poverty and lack of opportunity. My grandfather could barely speak English but fought in the trenches in France in World War I and gained his American citizenship. He then worked in the boiler shops of the Union Pacific Railroad and taught me the value of hard work, but also the value of using my mind to obtain an education. My father was a professor of oral surgery and endodontics at Creighton University’s dental school, and my mother was a premedical student before marrying my father after World War II. It was that influence that led me to want to become a surgeon at the young age of four.”
Dr. Vacanti also paid tribute to the mentors who encouraged his growth as a surgeon as well as those individuals who have inspired and supported him throughout his career. “My surgical heroes and mentors are Dr. William Hardy Hendren III [MD, FACS, FRCSI(Hon), FRCSEng(Hon), FRCSGlas(Hon)] and Dr. Judah Folkman [MD, FACS], both previous Jacobson Award recipients. Both taught me about surgical innovation and how to think about a problem and its definitive solution,” he said. “Dr. Folkman advised me that if I was going to devote my life to something that I should pick something important. My closest friend, Mr. Walter Smith, has been very important in advising me through the years on many matters both personal and professional, and Dr. Robert Langer [MD, FACS] has been a partner and friend in all of this work through many years.”
Recipient of numerous awards
Dr. Vacanti has received numerous honors and awards. In 2001, he was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. In 2007, the Board of Directors of City Trusts, acting for the city of Philadelphia, presented him the John Scott Award, which is given to the most deserving men and women whose inventions have contributed significantly to the comfort, welfare, and happiness of human beings. The award has been given in memory of Benjamin Franklin since 1822, and previous recipients include Madame Marie Curie, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Thomas Edison, and Jonas Salk, MD.