Published September 8, 2020

Healing Hearts

A cardiac surgeon studies use of re-engineered cells to help the vital organs repair themselves.

Leonard Y. Lee is nationally recognized for innovative surgical techniques, the treatment of valvular heart disease, and research on inflammation and stem cell therapies for cardiac repair. He is chair of the Department of Surgery at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS) and a practicing cardiac surgeon at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, which performs more than 1,600 cardiac surgeries each year.

photo of leonard leeLee and his colleagues are working to make diseased hearts heal themselves by exploring ways to remove connective tissue cells from a human heart and then re-engineer them into heart muscle cells.

“Heart failure has reached epidemic proportions,” Lee says. “Right now, the only option to treat it is surgery, transplant, or connecting the patient with a blood-pumping machine. But transplantable hearts are in short supply and mechanical devices limit the patient’s quality of life. So we are working on ways to help hearts heal themselves.”

Lee received his medical degree from Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in 1992 and completed his internship and general surgery residency at St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center. He held cardiothoracic surgery fellowships at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

He is board certified by the American Board of Surgery and the American Board of Thoracic Surgery. He is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, the American College of Cardiology, and the American College of Chest Physicians. He is a member of many societies, including the American Association for Thoracic Surgery, the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, the American Heart Association, the International Society of Minimally Invasive Cardiothoracic Surgery, and the American Medical Association.

He serves on the editorial boards of Cardiology, Journal of Cardiology Research and Therapy, Heart Health-Open Access Journal, CSurgeries, Journal of Experimental Cardiology and Research, and MOJ Surgery. He is involved in both basic research as well as clinical research with more than 200 published manuscripts and abstracts.

The James W. Mackenzie, M.D., Endowed Chair in Surgery is named for the former chair of surgery at Rutgers Medical School (now RWJMS) and dean of Rutgers Medical School from 1971 to 1975. Dr. Mackenzie, a mentor to generations of surgeons, was the author or co-author of more than 100 papers on lung cancer, ischemia, and molecular biology.

In the Professor’s Own Words

Why is there more heart failure now than in the past?

​Heart failure is more prevalent now because patients are living longer with chronic heart disease, whether it be coronary artery disease, valvular heart disease, or a combination of the two. In addition, people are living longer in general. Seeing patients well into their 80s has become a fairly routine part of our practice

What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?

​Several aspects of my work are extremely rewarding. Certainly, having the ability to care for critically ill patients is an honor and one not taken lightly. To impact a patient’s lifestyle and survival is very meaningful and I am grateful to have that opportunity. In addition, working with colleagues that I not only like but respect is rewarding and an educational experience for me on a daily basis. Finally, the research I am immersed in keeps my interest in furthering the science and art of medicine.

What aspect is most frustrating?

​The business side of medicine can be frustrating at times. However, anyone in a leadership role understands these challenges and works within the framework that we are given on a daily basis.

How do you characterize cardiac care at Rutgers?

​I have been at Rutgers for seven years, after having been in some of the largest and most prestigious institutions in the world. I have found that the patient care, technology, and quality of the physicians involved in cardiac care are equal to if not better than any of those institutions from where I came. It has been an incredible experience to be part of the Rutgers team.


This story is part of Rutgers University Foundation’s Endowed Chairs Impact series. Supporting professorships and research helps spark innovation and creativity here in New Jersey and beyond.