One of the world’s most influential reproductive scientists, Patricia Kilroy Donahoe, MD, FACS, in June received the 2021 Jacobson Innovation Award of the American College of Surgeons (ACS) during a virtual event. Dr. Donahoe, a general and pediatric surgeon, is director of pediatric surgical research laboratories and chief emerita of pediatric surgical services at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Boston.
This international surgical 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.
Dr. Donahoe is the leading expert in reproductive developmental biology and oncology. Her extraordinary career encompasses both pediatric surgery and lifelong innovative research.
Research has always been part of Dr. Donahoe’s medical education and professional life. She performed research in medical school and throughout her surgical fellowship training in the laboratory of Judah Folkman, MD, FACS, at Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as with W. Hardy Hendren III, MD, FACS, at MGH. Both Drs. Folkman and Hendren are previous recipients of the Jacobson Innovation Award for their work. View a complete list of past winners.
Dr. Donahoe then completed registrar and senior registrar posts at Adler Hey Children’s Hospital, Liverpool, U.K., under Drs. Peter P. Rickham and Herbert Johnston. In 1973, she joined the MGH department of surgery as the first woman surgeon on staff and also was asked to develop MGH’s pediatric surgical research program, where she combined her passions for surgery and research.
Pioneering research on MIS
During her years as a junior faculty member at MGH, Dr. Donahoe began her pioneering ongoing research on Mullerian inhibiting substance (MIS), which has changed the way clinicians understand reproduction. MIS has clinical applications in the regulation of normal reproduction and a potential role in the control of ovarian and other reproductive tumors.
Her pediatric surgical research led to a molecular understanding of the biology behind the development of reproductive structures and function. MIS is a gonadal hormone that causes regression of the Mullerian ducts, the anlagen of the female internal reproductive structures, during male embryogenesis.
In nonclinical terms, “Dr. Donahoe discovered one of the key molecular codes for what makes a boy a boy, and a girl a girl,” explained H. Randolph Bailey, MD, FACS, ACS First Vice-President.
This research has been key to a more sophisticated understanding of the complications of disorders of sexual differentiation. Disorders/differences of sex development (DSDs) are rare congenital conditions that are seen when a baby is born with variations in either or both male and female reproductive organs, making it difficult to assign gender at birth. These discoveries opened a new area of pediatric surgery. Thousands of children have benefitted from her research into the causes of these abnormalities.
Dr. Donahoe’s research has contributed to the understanding of the molecular and genetic causes of birth defects, particularly congenital diaphragmatic hernia, which adversely affects lung development. Her interest in lung development led her to devise a new technique for the repair of laryngotracheal esophageal clefts, of which there were no previous survivors.
A career of honors and awards
Dr. Donahoe is the recipient of consecutive National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants from 1976 to the present. She is the author of more than 300 peer-reviewed publications and has trained and mentored more than 100 fellows in her research laboratory. Dr. Donahoe holds multiple patents of composition and use of MIS. A Fellow of both the ACS and the National Academy of Medicine, she also is presently one of only two surgeons honored with fellowship in the National Academy of Sciences since 1999. Her research on MIS as a potential anti-cancer agent and in enhancing fertility garnered her the Pincus Medal from the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Worcester Foundation. She has been awarded the American Surgical Association’s Flance-Karl Award and the Gold Medallion for Research, the Fred Conrad Kock Award of the Endocrine Society, and the William Ladd Medal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She is a past-president of the American Pediatric Surgical Association, The Boston Surgical Society, and the New England Surgical Society.
A mentor to surgeon-scientists and endocrinologists
Dr. Donahoe has had a remarkable career both as a pediatric surgeon and as a world-class investigator. Not only has she contributed enormously to women’s health and reproductive endocrinology, but she also has expanded the reach of her work by training and mentoring an entire generation of young surgeons and endocrinologists, including both MDs and PhDs, in developmental biology, genetics, and genomics.