Dr. Frederick S. Kaplan is devoted to helping people who have fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP), a genetic condition that causes bone to form in muscles, tendons, ligaments and other connective tissues.
There’s a connection between his life’s work and his childhood in Highland Park, where he grew up in a home his father built on the corner of First Avenue and Johnson Street.
Kaplan recalls striking up a conversation one day with a kid he would see around town.
“I remember he didn’t have any legs,” Kaplan said. “And he would sit in this, I guess they had built him a wagon. He would push himself along.”
Kaplan came way wishing he could do something, someday to give to see him get up and walk again, to restore the kid’s freedom.
It’s the same goal that drives him to solve the riddle of FOP, which forms sheaths of extra bone across the joints, progressively restricting movement and forming a second skeleton that imprisons the people who have it in bone from jaw to ankles.
Kaplan, the Isaac and Rose Nassau Professor of Orthopedic Molecular Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, co-directs the only center in the world devoted entirely to studying FOP. Kaplan and his team discovered the FOP gene on April 26, 2006.
Over the years, he’s seen hundreds of people with FOP. Framed photos of them smiling cover most of the space on the desk and wall in his office.
“He thinks of them as his family,” said Denise Vietti, Operations Manager for International Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting medical research, education and communication among people who have FOP.
“These are all of his children,” she added.