“I’ve developed innovative sutures that help save lives”
Johnson & Johnson got its start as a pioneer of sterile surgical sutures and continues to make advancements today. Jesse Nawrocki, Ph.D., shares how he and his award-winning team are working to make surgery easier for doctors and safer for patients.
At the time, suturing a wound typically required surgeons to hold tissue together as they tied knots to close the wound, which can be difficult to do. Stratafix sutures, however, have a series of anchors affixed to them. This helps grab the tissue to maintain tension every time a surgeon passes through tissue and also provides a watertight seal.
“I explained our vision for this new suture—how it would help facilitate suturing in minimally invasive procedures, where doctors have to work through tiny tubes, and also help prevent issues like infection because of the tightness of the seal,” says Nawrocki. “And the surgeons started asking questions with an undertone of, ‘Really? I don’t know how that’s going to work.’”
So Nawrocki asked the physicians to humor him. They followed him to the lab, where he and the team showed them the sutures in action. Once the physicians started testing them out, they were in awe of how the Stratafix sutures passed, grasped and held tissue.
“By the time we got back to the conference room, the surgeons’ thinking had changed 180 degrees,” recalls Nawrocki, who took their feedback that day and continued iterating.
After more improvements, the surgeons returned a few months later for a demonstration of the sutures—a nerve-wracking moment, admits Nawrocki, who now holds the title of Associate Director, Research and Development at Ethicon, a Johnson & Johnson MedTech company.
Nawrocki and his team of scientists and engineers are passionate about developing new products used in surgical procedures, and many of the products they’ve developed—including the Stratafix sutures, for which Nawrocki won a 2022 Johnson Medal—are now widely adopted in a variety of surgical procedures. The Johnson Medal for Research and Development is the most prestigious award given for research and development excellence at Johnson & Johnson.
Today, there are over 300 suture codes in the Stratafix portfolio spanning three different suture options. All are available on Ethicon patented PLUS antibacterial suture technology. Stratafix barbed suture has become a mainstay for key surgical procedures like orthopedic joint surgery, general and plastic surgery and the growing application of robotic surgery.
To learn more about the surgical innovations Nawrocki has developed and what drives his passion in the lab and at home, read on.
Growing up, what was the earliest clue that you would one day be a scientist working in healthcare?
I always liked science and math, which is why I pursued an engineering degree. But did I think I’d design products that would be implanted during surgical procedures? Absolutely not!
I didn’t love electrical engineering or computer science, so I gravitated toward the core material science classes—a mix between chemistry and mechanical engineering. When I was in school, they didn’t even have biomedical engineering as a focus. I laugh about this when I talk with students, summer interns and those younger in their careers now who studied biomedical engineering.
My father also inspired me to go into the field. He was a blue-collar worker in a steel mill; he didn’t have the same opportunities I did. He knew I was good in science and math and said, Why not think about engineering? He led me in that direction, and I took it from there.
What part of your work do you enjoy the most?
I really like working with surgeons. To develop new products used in surgical procedures, my team of scientists and engineers has to understand the unmet needs of healthcare practitioners. We take those unmet needs and create concepts and prototypes and then develop and test those products. Eventually we take them to market so they can be used in surgical procedures.
I know friends and family who’ve used products I personally helped develop. What we make helps people get back to a healthy life. That’s a humbling feeling.
Meeting with surgeons could involve almost anything, from discussing what they need to inviting them into the lab so they can use our prototypes. Or I’ll go to the hospital to watch them in surgery, so I can see how things are done and understand why they do things a certain way. I’m continuously learning, which is a lot of fun.
I also really like the people-management and business-development aspects of my role. Seeing the folks on my team develop and do well, giving them opportunities to grow and watching them take off is amazing. The strategic part of my job always keeps me thinking about what areas we’re going to explore next.
What science or medical research breakthroughs do you hope to see in your lifetime?
There are two areas where I’d really like to see significant progress: The first is cancer. People have some understanding of what causes it, but sometimes it doesn’t seem like there’s any rhyme or reason.
It would also be amazing if there was a way eradicate diseases that impact children, in particular.
In terms of breakthroughs in my own field, a lot of the products we have focus on repairing tissue—for example, tissue was disrupted because a surgeon made an incision and removed something or fixed an anatomical defect.
I’d like to see us do even more minimally invasive procedures, so we can shift from asking the question, “How can we repair?” to asking, “How can we promote the body’s natural healing mechanism?” I think we’re moving this way and continually improving in this area, which is something that really drives me.
What else motivates you at work?
One of the striking things about the products we make is that there’s a pretty good chance one or more will be used on yourself, your spouse, your family members and your friends. I know friends and family who’ve used products I personally helped develop. What we make helps people get back to a healthy life. That’s a humbling feeling.
What has been your proudest achievement in your work life so far?
Winning the Johnson Medal—the highest award that can be given at Johnson & Johnson for research and development. Winning it twice was very satisfying.
I first won the award in 2005 for the MultiPassTM Needle Coating I helped develop. When surgeons are suturing during surgery, the needle they use passes through tissue many times, which leads to the needle feeling progressively duller. This, in turn, leads to breakage or requires the surgeon to get a new needle. The composite coating we created for MultiPass needles maintains their lubricity and durability. And I’m proud to say the MultiPass needle coating is still used today.
People see scientists on TV and assume we sit in a lab with our white coats on, running experiments all day. Yet most scientists have a good idea of the business side of things—the marketplace, manufacturing and intellectual property.
I won the Johnson Medal again last year for our Stratafix sutures, which have really helped surgeons in all kinds of procedures—especially orthopedic, general and gynecological surgery and especially in procedures performed minimally invasively, such as robotically. I’m proud that these sutures have been widely adopted, and it’s a true honor to have the recognition for years of work in research and development.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about scientists?
People see scientists on TV and assume we sit in a lab with our white coats on, running experiments all day.
Yet most scientists have a good idea of the business side of things—the marketplace, manufacturing and intellectual property. In my field, we also spend a lot of time watching surgeries. Being in the lab is a part of the job, but we do so much more.
Our work is grounded in science and engineering, but we have to see the business aspect as well. You could come up with the coolest discovery, but if it doesn’t fulfill an unmet need or you can’t make it, it’s useless.
How do you spend a day off?
I like to spend a lot of time with my kids. I have two boys, ages 12 and 17. I’d spend the day with my wife and boys, doing something fun in the Pocono mountains in Pennsylvania. We’d kayak on a lake, I’d fish with my sons and we’d just hang out and enjoy the time together.
And I’m a big sports fan—my favorite teams are the Las Vegas Raiders, Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphia Flyers and Penn State for college football. If I had a different career, I think I’d be doing something involving sports. Not that I’d be playing! I’ve got a questionable level of ability there. But maybe I’d be a coach, because I like the people-management angle of my job.