Cracchiolo Foundation Supports Research and Education at UF Health

From left to right: Steven J. Hughes, MD; Nipun Merchant, MD (Cracchiolo Family Professorship in Surgery Visiting Professorship Lecturer for 2016) and Jim Cracchiolo.
From left: Steven J. Hughes, MD;
Nipun Merchant, MD (Cracchiolo Family Professorship in Surgery Visiting Professorship Lecturer for 2016) and Jim Cracchiolo.

A skilled and compassionate surgical team turned a near-death experience into a generational relationship with the University of Florida.

The Cracchiolo Foundation, founded by Annita and Sam Cracchiolo Sr., is dedicated to religious, charitable, scientific, literacy or educational purposes, said Jim Cracchiolo, son of the founders and a director of the foundation.

In 1994, the foundation established the Cracchiolo Family Professorship in Surgery at UF to recognize the outstanding care provided to Lena Testa, a sister of Sam Cracchiolo Sr., by Edward M. Copeland III, MD, Stephen B. Vogel, MD, and their surgical team.

“Dr. Vogel and Dr. Copeland subscribed to excellence in care, and they were great at building relationships with their patients,” Cracchiolo said. “As a result of their dedication, my father felt compelled to endow the professorship. Since the original endowment, continued excellence has strengthened the relationship established more than 22 years ago between the university and the Cracchiolo family.”

The current holder of the endowed professorship is Steven J. Hughes, MD, an associate professor of surgery and chief of the division of general surgery at the UF College of Medicine. He also serves as vice chair for the department of surgery.

“Dr. Hughes has fostered work in translational scientific labs while mentoring surgeon-scientists to make relevant contributions in the detection, prevention and treatment of pancreatic disease,” Cracchiolo said. “Seeing results is rewarding and has motivated us to continue supporting the surgeons and researchers at UF.”

Hughes said the Cracchiolos’ funding fosters research and education of UF faculty and surgeons.

“The benefit is both professional and academic,” he said. “This funding allows our surgeons to regularly exchange knowledge at national and international conferences for basic science, translational studies and clinical outcomes. The funding also helps cover the costs of publishing articles in various professional and clinical journals.”

The Cracchiolo funding mostly supports research projects through the UF Department of Surgery. For instance, Hughes is currently performing research that targets the connection between protein levels in pancreatic tissue and pancreatic disease.

“We found significant differences in protein levels between pancreatic cancer and other diseases of the pancreas. Variations in those levels within pancreatic cancer can also predict a patient’s prognosis,” Hughes said. “We are in the process of sorting out how best to use this new knowledge for diagnosing and personalizing treatments for pancreatic cancer patients.”

In addition to the support of scientific advancements, Cracchiolo also emphasized the importance of mentoring the next generation of surgeon-scientists like Dan Delitto, MD, a general surgery resident who is also working on obtaining a PhD. Delitto’s research centers on triggering the immune system to fight pancreatic cancer. He is currently working in Hughes’ research lab and is the first UF student supported by the Cracchiolo Foundation.

“I never knew I had a passion for research until I came to UF. I couldn’t have gone into this lab without the Cracchiolos’ support,” Delitto said. “The Cracchiolos’ generosity is why I’m here at all.”

Pancreatic cancer is associated with extremely poor survival, Delitto explained, and about 80 percent of cases are diagnosed in the advanced stages — excluding any possibility for a cure. He hopes that his research will provide treatment alternatives to toxic chemotherapies.

“It’s rewarding to watch a young resident grow scientifically and gain confidence in their field,” Cracchiolo said. “It is most gratifying when we can help inspire a young doctor to challenge their scientific curiosity. By doing so, we know we are making a difference in their lives and the lives of future patients.”