Dr. Denver Lough is President, Chief Executive Officer, and Chairman of PolarityTE, a biotech company developing methods for patients’ own cells to regenerate functionally-polarized tissues. Denver received his MD and PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular and Cell Biology from Georgetown University. He completed his residency in Plastic Surgery at Johns Hopkins University. Afterwards, Denver founded PolarityTE. In our interview Denver will tell us more about his life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:07)
When he isn’t working at PolarityTE, Denver enjoys spending time with his wife and three young children. It is exciting to watch them learn and discover new things about the world, and it makes Denver appreciate all the remarkable things in life that we sometimes overlook.
The Scientific Side (3:23)
Denver and the team at Polarity TE have developed novel methods to successfully induce regeneration across the full spectrum of tissue types including skin, muscle, and bone. They have accomplished this by understanding the environment, stimuli, and interactions needed for these tissues to orient, self-organize, and develop. With their technology, patients with a variety of diseases and injuries can regenerate fully functional tissues from their own cells.
A Dose of Motivation (7:17)
“Now this is not the end. It’s not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” – Winston Churchill
What Got You Hooked on Science? (11:05)
Growing up, Denver enjoyed drawing and taking things apart to see how they worked. Denver’s interest in exploring functions and systems that started with disassembling his toys persisted throughout his time in high school and college. He decided to pursue an MD/PhD program and become a surgeon scientist because surgery is considered one of the more physical specialties in medicine. During his training, Denver became fascinated by complex biological systems and tissue regeneration. In 2015, Denver traveled to Taiwan to help treat burn victims of the Taipei Formosa Water Park explosion. This experience was transformative. Denver began thinking about whether there was something more that they could do for patients using the research they were doing in the lab. Around this time, Denver and his mentor were approached by venture capital groups and others interested in helping commercialize their research. Denver decided to leave his position at Johns Hopkins to start PolarityTE.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (22:34)
They encountered many challenges in creating the minimally polarized functional units that they now use to generate complex tissue systems able to grow and develop on patients. Denver failed over and over trying to get organized tissues to develop from a single cell using cell suspension techniques. These techniques are commonly used in many research laboratories. They are based on the idea that by adding a growth factor and a scaffold to a single stem cell, the stem cell will begin to divide and self organize into functional tissue. This just wasn’t working. After long days and nights in the lab trying to get these experiments to work, Denver finally realized that single cell suspensions weren’t the solution he was looking for. It was key to have specific polarized aggregates of cells that he could alter in simple ways to allow cells to self-organize and undergo development as it occurs in native tissues.
A Shining Success! (26:15)
Every day, Denver sees new patients and lives being impacted by the work that their company is doing. They have a clinical operations team of physicians, physician assistants, and nursing staff who all left clinical practice to join the company to help deliver their technology to patients. Because of the efforts of this team, they are now reviewing the outcomes from patients and hearing the patients’ stories. These stories of how the Skin TE process has helped people, impacted their families, and in some cases saved lives are really meaningful successes that drive Denver and the company.
Book Recommendations (28:06)
The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir
Most Treasured Travel (29:27)
Over the last few months, Denver has traveled to countries in the Middle East and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to meet with scientists, clinicians, and staff at hospitals and research centers to learn about their clinical operations. In particular, one visit brought him to the Sultan Bin Abdulaziz Humanitarian City in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. While there may be cultural and political differences, Denver was struck by the amazing people he met, the exceptional facilities there, and the impressive research being done. The passion, momentum, innovation, and growth in this area was really awe-inspiring. He is looking forward to seeing the technology and ideas coming out of this area in the future.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (33:33)
Whether Denver was at Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, or Polarity TE, celebrating Halloween has always been an important part of the culture. Last Halloween, there was a Medical Affairs Committee Meeting scheduled on Halloween. These are serious meetings where they review outcomes, products, clinical trials, and other important topics within the company. This meeting is also video broadcasted to multiple locations. Denver entered the meeting dressed up as a large banana, and he took a seat in the back to listen. As he looked around the room, it occurred to him how funny it was to have everyone dressed up in costumes for this serious gathering. The patient outcomes report was presented by a colleague dressed up as Freddy Krueger, and the quality systems and clinical trials updates were given by someone dressed up as Jack Sparrow.
Advice For Us All (39:09)
Orient yourself for the pursuit of truth, and remain hungry for the answers that you seek. Form a career around the things that you love and are good at, but never forget that your most important priority is the people in your life.
Denver has always sought to investigate reality, pursue complex simplicity and develop a new paradigm in translational science. He is the discoverer of micro-aggregate cell-based technologies for applications in the regeneration of functionally-polarized tissues. A prior member of the Johns Hopkins Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Residency Program, Denver’s interests surround pragmatic tissue engineering, deployable regenerative material constructs, real-time assessment of cell-to-tissue fate, reactivity, functionality and, ultimately, therapeutic efficacy in complex living systems. Denver has significant experience with bench-to-bedside translational applications from assays/equipment to IRB/clinical trial development to scientific writing and presenting. He is well-respected within the field by thought leaders, with numerous national awards and accolades, as well as the ability to access a wide variety of clinical and research networks and markets. Based in Utah, Denver enjoys spending time with his family exploring the great outdoors.