Orland Bethel Family Musculoskeletal Research Center //


Message from the Executive Director

Welcome to the Orland Bethel Family Musculoskeletal Research Center (BMRC). Our mission is to support scientific curiosity, discovery, education and the dissemination of ideas within the field of musculoskeletal research and to improve patients’ lives.

It has been reported that about 50% of young post-doctoral researchers leave academic careers within five years of completing their PhDs. This departure is due, in part, to the challenges of obtaining funding for their research interests. Early to mid-career researchers and clinician scientists often struggle to obtain significant government funding as they lack preliminary research data to apply for larger grants. They are discouraged from pursuing what are regarded as “risky” yet high-yield projects for fear of failure.

One focus of the BMRC is to support those young, early-career researchers and trainees so that their ideas and talents can produce breakthrough treatments for musculoskeletal ailments. The center will work to change how we approach the big questions and allow creativity to solve musculoskeletal problems with outside-the-box solutions.

The BMRC’s second focus is to support the education of young undergraduate, PhD and medical students in pursuit of translational research. We aim to fund research interests in the early stages of education in the hope of fostering and propagating future career scientists.

The third focus is the dissemination of knowledge. We hope to bring together scientific collaborations via research seminars and timely publication of new and relevant data.

The center was established in October 2023 through the generosity of one of my patients, Orland Bethel, founder of Hillandale Farms.

With his exceptional gift, matched by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Mr. Bethel and his family have begun a foundational and generational change in the way we support musculoskeletal research here at the University of Pittsburgh. It is nothing short of transformative.

Warm regards,

Smiling headshot of Joon Y. Lee.

Joon Y. Lee.

Joon Y. Lee, MD

Executive Director, Orland Bethel Family Musculoskeletal Research Center
Clinical Director, Ferguson Laboratory for Orthopaedic and Spine Research
Orland Bethel Endowed Professor, (Division of Spinal Surgery) Department of Orthopaedic Surgery
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

BMRC Celebration, Oct. 27, 2023

A reception at Alan Magee Scaife Hall on Oct. 27, 2023, celebrated the establishment of the Bethel Musculoskeletal Research Center in the School of Medicine. Speakers included Dr. Anantha Shekhar, Dr. MaCalus Hogan, Dr. Joon Lee and Mr. Orland Bethel.

Orland Bethel

Orland Bethel’s Story

Born in southeast Ohio and raised on a dairy farm, Orland Bethel borrowed $4,000 from his parents and in-laws to start an egg production and distribution company, Hillandale Farms, in 1958. After decades of hard work, he built the company into an industry leader.

In 2014, Bethel was dealing with spinal stenosis, a condition that causes the narrowing and squeezing of the nerves and spinal cord, causing pain and other symptoms. He consulted six orthopaedic surgeons but wanted to avoid the invasive procedure they recommended.

Joon Y. Lee, professor of orthopaedic surgery, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, associate program director and clinical director of the Ferguson Laboratory, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, was able to address Bethel’s problem with a minimally invasive approach, following it a few years later with another spinal operation for a subsequent problem.

In appreciation, Bethel and his foundation created the Orland Bethel Professorship in Spine Surgery, which Lee now holds.

On Oct. 4, 2023, the University announced his $25 million gift, which will lead to the creation of the Orland Bethel Family Musculoskeletal Research Center. The School of Medicine will coinvest equally with the foundation. The center, part of the Departments of Orthopaedic Surgery and of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, will occupy an entire floor of lab and research space in the Biomedical Science Tower 2 research facility.

The new center—expected to open in 2024—will provide multi-year 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

The gift launches an array of programs under the new center’s umbrella, including 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.

Half of the gift is to be used immediately, with the remainder scheduled to launch an endowment to support the initiative in perpetuity.

Visit the UPMC website to learn more about Bethel’s story.

Our Mission

The mission of the BMRC is to:

  • Support and foster investigators to pursue careers in translational, clinical and basic science research in musculoskeletal-related fields.
  • Encourage and support the education of trainees interested in musculoskeletal clinician scientist pathways.
  • Support the discovery and sharing of scientific knowledge to benefit the musculoskeletal research community.

Our immediate goal is to support a collaborative community of scientists and trainees to share knowledge, tools and models to perform high-impact musculoskeletal research.

To this end, BMRC will:

  • Support existing and new musculoskeletal investigators, with emphasis on early- and mid-phase clinician scientists, to pursue and continue careers in translational research.
  • Encourage early-phase musculoskeletal scientific projects that are high-risk and high-reward.
  • Create and support education programs through scholarships, research symposiums and seminars to disseminate new musculoskeletal research findings.

Our long-term goal is to develop an international reputation in musculoskeletal research by creating a one-of-a-kind research environment to promote and preserve musculoskeletal health.

For more information, contact bethel@pitt.edu.

Center Leadership

Joon Lee

Dr. Joon Y. Lee is the founding director of the BMRC. He specializes in cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine surgery in the greater Pittsburgh area. Dr. Lee graduated summa cum laude from University of California, Berkeley, and obtained his medical degree from Yale Medical School. He completed his residency in orthopaedic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, PA, and his fellowship in spine surgery at the Rothman Institute-Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, PA. Dr. Lee performs spinal surgery using standard techniques and the latest cutting-edge surgical technologies. These include minimally invasive spine surgery, disc replacement, and microsurgical decompression. For certain spinal problems, these new techniques may allow faster recovery and eliminate the need for spinal fusion.

Education & Training

MD, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT
Residency: UPMC Medical Education for Orthopaedic Surgery, Pittsburgh, PA
Fellowship: Thomas Jefferson University Medical College, Philadelphia, PA

Research Interests

Ferguson Laboratory for Orthopaedic and Spine Research

Dr. Lee has been involved in research at the National Institutes of Health, Yale Medical School Research Laboratories, and the Orthopaedic Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh. He has authored numerous articles and lectured extensively on topics such as cervical disc herniation, cervical myelopathy, cervical disc replacement, lumbar disc herniation, lumbar spinal stenosis, lumbar disc replacement, spinal fusion, spine trauma, microsurgical decompression, and non-fusion technologies. More information is available by visiting the Ferguson Spine Lab website.

MaCalus Hogan

Dr. MaCalus V. Hogan, MD, MBA, is an American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery-certified orthopaedic surgeon. He attended Howard University College of Medicine, where he completed his medical degree, and then moved on to the University of Virginia Health System for residency training in orthopaedic surgery. After residency, Dr. Hogan completed his foot and ankle fellowship at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, where he served as a consultant for the New York Ballet Company, American Ballet Theatre and several professional and collegiate sport teams. Currently, Dr. Hogan is the David Silver Professor and Chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and chair of orthopaedic surgery at UPMC. He also holds the position of director ofthe Foot and Ankle Injury Research (FAIR) group within the department of Orthopaedic Surgery.

Dr. Hogan is a member of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the American Orthopaedic Association, the Orthopaedic Research Society, the American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society, and the J. Robert Gladden Orthopaedic Society, the latter two of which he serves on the board of directors. He has also made major contributions to the field of orthopaedic surgery through his research. During his residency, Dr. Hogan completed a Clinician Scientist fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Since then, he has more than 150 manuscripts, book chapters, and presentations both nationally and internationally to his credit.

In addition to his clinical and research practice, Dr. Hogan serves as a foot and ankle consultant for the athletic departments at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, Duquesne University, and Robert Morris University. He also serves as the assistant team physician for Point Park University, including the Conservatory of Performing Arts, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh Penguins and Pittsburgh Steelers. He holds secondary appointments in the Swanson School of Engineering (Bioengineering), Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) and Katz Graduate School of Business-International EMBA Program at the University of Pittsburgh.

Gwendolyn Sowa

Dr. Gwendolyn Sowa is Endowed Professor and Chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and co-director of the Ferguson Laboratory for Orthopaedic and Spine Research at the University of Pittsburgh, where she holds joint appointments in the Departments of Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering. She also serves as director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute.

As an active clinician scientist, Dr. Sowa focuses her research on the biological and clinical phenotyping of patients with low back pain to facilitate improved treatments. She also serves as the co-principal investigator (PI) for the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Back Pain Consortium (NIH/NIAMS BACPAC) Mechanistic Research Center, part of the Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative.

Using her background in biochemistry, Dr. Sowa performs molecular laboratory-based, translational and clinical research, investigating the effect of motion on inflammatory pathways and the benefits of exercise. Dr. Sowa also has an active research program investigating the role of serum biomarkers in guiding individualized treatment in intervertebral disc degeneration and back pain. She was recently recognized for her contributions by election to the National Academy of Medicine.

Dr. Sowa’s publications are indexed on PubMed

Nam Vo

Dr. Nam Vo is professor of orthopaedic surgery and deputy vice chair of research in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, where he also holds joint appointments in the Departments of Pathology, McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Clinical and Translational Science Institute, and University of Pittsburgh/UPMC Aging Institute.

Dr. Vo received his PhD degree with Dr. Michael Chamberlin in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. He completed his postdoctoral training with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator Dr. Michael Lai at the University of Southern California in 2003 and joined the faculty of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh in 2006.

Dr. Vo is a highly dedicated mentor, having trained more than 50 mentees, many of whom have gone on to have successful careers as independent investigators. He is well-funded by the NIH and other grant-making agencies and has published more than 100 peer reviewed publications, review articles, and book chapters. He is currently a co-director of the Ferguson Laboratory for Spine Research, which has diverse representation from experts in orthopaedic surgery, physiatry and physical therapy who are performing highly inter-disciplinary spine research that spans molecular and cell biology, histology, bioengineering, biomechanics, cell biology, biomarkers for spine degeneration and low back pain.

Dr. Vo’s research program examines the biology of aging of the spine and its contribution to low back pain. His research focus areas include: 1) interaction of autophagy and cellular senescence in spinal aging, 2) lactate metabolism and epigenetic regulation in spinal aging, 3) development of therapeutic interventions, including senolytics and gene therapy, for treating age-related spine degeneration and low back pain, and 4) deep phenotyping of chronic low back pain through biomarker profiling.

View a list of Dr. Vo’s publications here.

Laurie Dearolf

Dr. Laurie Dearolf, PhD is the Operations Manager for the BMRC. She received her PhD from the University of Pittsburgh Department of Bioengineering, and then completed postdoctoral training at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh/ University of Pittsburgh Department of Plastic Surgery.

Following academic training, Dr. Dearolf worked with The Perry Initiative, most recently serving as executive director for 8 years. The Perry Initiative’s mission focused on reducing gender disparity in orthopaedic surgery and related engineering careers through hands-on orthopaedic surgery outreach programs for more than 18,000 high school & medical students.

Dr. Dearolf holds special interest in diversity, equity and inclusion in the field of orthopaedics, believing that diverse ideas brought forth by diverse investigators and clinician scientists are the key to creating breakthroughs in treatment and prevention of musculoskeletal diseases.

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