Dr. Daniel Chung is the global medical strategy lead for ophthalmology at Spark Therapeutics. Dan earned both his bachelor’s degree in biology and master’s degree in family counseling from Eastern Nazarene College in Massachusetts. He also holds a doctorate degree in Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) from the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine. Afterward, Dan became a research training award fellow at the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health, studying retinal gene therapy, and he went on to complete his residency in ophthalmology within the Summa Health System in Ohio. Dan joined the Cleveland Clinic as a pediatric ophthalmology clinical/ocular genetics research fellow and subsequently worked as a senior investigator at the Scheie Eye Institute in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania for eleven years before joining the team at Spark Therapeutics in 2014. In this interview, Dan shares more about his personal and professional passions, as well as his research.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:21)
When he isn’t working or traveling, Dan enjoys spending time with his family. He is also an avid photographer who loves capturing photos of nature, landscapes, and wildlife. In particular, Dan has really enjoyed photographing the panoramic landscapes of Monument Valley in Arizona, brown bears in Alaska, and polar bears in Northern Canada.
The Scientific Side (4:46)
Spark Therapeutics is a company that concentrates on discovering, developing, and delivering gene therapy for rare diseases. Dan works in the area of ophthalmology, and he and his colleagues brought the first FDA-approved gene therapy for a genetic disease to market. This therapy was created to treat an inherited retinal disease that results in blindness and is caused by having variants or mutations in both alleles of the RPE65 gene.
A Dose of Motivation (5:42)
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
What Got You Hooked on Science? (7:31)
When he was two years old, Dan immigrated with his parents from South Korea to the United States. Home and family were important as he grew up, and his parents were very supportive of his early interests in science. Dan was particularly fascinated with insects. He had a bug collection, and he could often be found plucking insects off of trees and trying to catch them in his butterfly net. Over the years, his interests shifted to animals, biology, and disease. Dan enjoyed research because it allowed him to answer questions about how things worked. He was also drawn to the sense of discovery, collaboration, learning, and relationship-building that were part of doing science. Though the area of inherited retinal diseases wasn’t the most popular topic in medicine, it resonated with him to try to solve problems in an area where there weren’t currently any solutions.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (17:24)
There were many challenges along the way as they developed the first FDA-approved gene therapy for inherited retinal disease. Going through the regulatory pathway, completing the clinical trials, and creating their own novel endpoints for their clinical trials were all difficult endeavors. Dan and his colleagues also faced challenges in working on a rare disease. An important aspect of determining whether a new therapy is effective is whether it can change the natural history of a disease. Unfortunately, relatively little data were available on the natural history of this inherited retinal disease. As a result, they had to conduct their own natural history study, and they developed a novel mobility test to measure functional vision.
A Shining Success! (20:09)
After all of the hard work that went into the project, it was so exciting when the gene therapy was approved to treat the inherited retinal disease related to the RPE65 gene variants/mutations. Dan was grateful to be part of the excellent team at Spark Therapeutics and to have been involved in bringing not only the first gene therapy for a retinal disease to the clinic, but also the first gene therapy for a genetic disease. Years ago during his medical fellowship working in an inherited retinal disease clinic, it was difficult for Dan to tell patients that he didn’t have any therapies to offer them. He would assure the patients that there was great research going on in this area and that one day there might be a gene therapy. Being able to develop this therapy has been incredibly rewarding.
Book Recommendations (22:43)
The Bible, photography by Art Wolfe and Thomas Mangelsen
Most Treasured Travel (24:13)
Through his science, Dan has had the opportunity to travel all over the world. London is among his favorite cities in Europe. When there, he likes to find restaurants off the beaten path to enjoy some delicious fish and chips. Dan has traveled throughout Italy for his work, and he recommends visiting the Colosseum in Rome, Vatican City, and the beautiful Italian countryside. Tokyo is one of Dan’s favorite cities in Asia because the people are nice, the city is clean, and the food is amazing. There are also phenomenal camera shops there that have everything you could possibly want to buy.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (27:33)
In one of the labs Dan worked in previously, he and his colleagues were studying gene therapy relatively early in the history of the field. It was easy to get frustrated with the lack of positive results in their research. To help vent their frustrations, they would set up a series of conical tubes and try to knock them over by stretching out and launching rubber gloves at the tubes. Scientists are often very serious about the work they do, but they are also creative and find innovative ways to have fun.
Advice For Us All (32:57)
Persistence and hard work are key in science. If you are stumped by a problem, take a step back to look at the bigger picture. Trying new and potentially unorthodox methods may be the key to the solution. Keep an open mind and be flexible. Persistence usually pays off, but it doesn’t always pay off. In Dan’s case with the gene therapy they developed for the RPE65 gene mutations, it took nearly 16 years from when they first published their preclinical work to when the therapy was approved. It may seem like a long time, but it was worth it in the end.
As the global medical strategy lead of ophthalmology at Spark Therapeutics, Dan was heavily involved in the design and development of the Multi-Luminance Mobility Test (MLMT) – the novel endpoint used in the clinical trial to show efficacy of LUXTURNA, the first FDA-approved gene therapy for a genetic disease and the only pharmacologic treatment for inherited retinal disease (IRD). Dan’s journey into gene therapy and inherited retinal disease began in the early 2000’s, during his fellowship years, when he saw that there were no existing treatments. Inspired to be a part of the solution, Dan joined the molecular ophthalmology group at the University of Pennsylvania and joined the RPE65 gene therapy clinical trials group at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and eventually became instrumental in the development for the MLMT under Spark. When Dan is not serving as an ophthalmology/IRD resource at Spark, he enjoys spending time with family and photographing nature and wildlife scenes. To date, his work has been displayed at a number of local cafes, art galleries and art shows in the greater Philadelphia area. To view his photography work, please visit Dan’s photography website. More information about his work with Spark can be seen here.