Orland Bethel, seated at an outdoor table, smiles warmly.
Hillandale Farms family donates $25 million to launch Pitt’s Orland Bethel Family Musculoskeletal Research Center

The Orland Bethel Family Foundation has pledged a $25 million gift — for which the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine will make an equivalent co-investment — that will enable Pitt to elevate its study of musculoskeletal disorders including osteoporosis, degenerative arthritis, fragility fractures and spinal pathology.

The $50 million total will create the Orland Bethel Family Musculoskeletal Research Center (BMRC) to attract and retain top scientists as well as to advance leading-edge research, making musculoskeletal medicine a major focus alongside cancer and neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the other five schools of the health sciences.

“We are poised to develop potential breakthroughs in therapeutics through clinical and basic science research in musculoskeletal diseases and orthopaedic surgery,” said Anantha Shekhar, the John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the School of Medicine and senior vice chancellor for the health sciences at Pitt. “The center will support clinicians, investigators, trainees and students in areas that will bring hope to the hundreds of thousands who face these problems every day.”

What began as seeking care for incapacitating pain has become a transformative gift to benefit future patients, researchers, educators and physicians. Orland Bethel, pictured above, suffered debilitating spinal pain from back to neck before turning to scientists and clinicians at the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC for help. Bethel, founder of Hillandale Farms, which is one of the United States’ largest egg producers, received relief after successful surgery and treatment, enjoying restored function and motion thanks to Joon Y. Lee of Pitt’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and UPMC.

“My family and I are pleased to offer our support to the spectacular work of Dr. Joon Lee and the other surgeons, physicians and researchers within the department led by Dr. MaCalus V. Hogan through the creation of the Orland Bethel Family Musculoskeletal Research Center,” Bethel said. “I know how the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC changed my life and can only imagine how the lives of others — worse off than I was — will be improved thanks to the ongoing research at this new center.”

The gift launches an array of programs under the new center’s umbrella: the BMRC Core Laboratories, Bethel Research Fellows and an annual conference and seminar where scientists will share their work and discover new opportunities for collaboration. Among the participating entities in the center are the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the School of Medicine, the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, the Department of Bioengineering in the Swanson School of Engineering, and the Pittsburgh Center for Pain Research.

The BMRC will elevate current orthopaedic work, translate it into applicable treatments and further enhance both Pitt’s and UPMC’s leadership in the discipline locally, nationally and internationally. Half of the gift will be put to use immediately, with the remainder scheduled to launch an endowment that will support the initiative in perpetuity.

The new center — expected to open in 2024 — will provide multiyear commitments to support such areas as:

  • Understanding molecular, genetic and biological mechanisms in spine-related diseases
  • Understanding the influence of gender and age on disease and recovery from musculoskeletal disorders
  • Developing therapies for osteoarthritis
  • Using stem cells to repair and recover from peripheral nerve injuries
  • Applying machine learning algorithms for orthopaedic issues

“With this exceptional gift, Orland Bethel and his family are supporting and advancing our continuum of work, from basic science to patient care,” University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Joan Gabel said. “I am grateful for the confidence they have placed in Pitt and for how this gift will help to elevate musculoskeletal research through the development of world-class talent and transformational discovery.”

In a prior gift, Bethel and his foundation created the Orland Bethel Chair in Spine Surgery, which is held by Lee. As part of the new award, the University will place the center’s name on the entrance to the Biomedical Science Tower Complex, where it will be housed.

“This generous gift is nothing short of transformative. This investment will have both immediate and generational impact. With the help of Mr. Bethel and his family, we can work to immediately change how we approach the big questions, improve cross campus collaboration and allow creativity to solve musculoskeletal problems ‘outside-the-box,’” Lee said. “The influence of this gift will be felt across the entire system — from young medical school students, through accomplished researchers, on to improvements in patient care.”

The University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery has achieved national and international prominence, earning a stellar reputation for leading many key scientific and clinical innovations, with one of the top and most diverse orthopaedic training programs in the country. Similarly, the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation is a leader in National Institutes of Health rehabilitation research.

Hogan, chair of orthopaedic surgery, noted both the vitality and the novelty of the gift: “Orland Bethel is helping to speed up that imperative cycle. He benefited from scientific advancements and innovation from the bench to his bedside and, thanks to the Bethel family’s generosity, now we can continue elevating and translating the efforts of our research programs into the clinical reality for our patients.”

Photography by Aimee Obidzinski