Ep. 14: A mark through coronaviruses

Dr. Mark Denison has been studying coronaviruses since the 1980s

Episode Transcript

Host (Simon Floss): Hello, and welcome to ‘Innovations,’ a podcast series brought to you by the experts at Sanford Health. You are listening to our 16th episode, ‘A Mark through Coronavirus.’ I’m your host Simon Floss with Sanford Health News.

The practice of medicine goes far beyond clinic walls. The Innovations podcast looks at the biggest issues facing healthcare today. Each episode offers the opportunity to see the ever-changing world of health and wellness through new eyes. Our leaders offer out of the box solutions to some nagging questions.

Today we’re excited to be talking with Dr. Mark Denison, a man whose work has been instrumental in fighting not only COVID-19, but all Coronaviruses. Dr. Denison is one of the three finalists for the 2020 Sanford Lorraine Cross Award, which highlights breakthroughs and innovations in medical science. He’s been studying Corona viruses since the 1980s and played an integral part in determining the efficacy of rum desert via a drug that can terminate the growth of Coronavirus.

Thanks for joining us today. Dr. Denison,

Dr. Denison: My pleasure to be here, Simon.

Host: It’s a pleasure and honor to even be sitting here and talking with you. And I got to say, congratulations on being a finalist. Let’s have our listeners get to know you a little bit more. What do you do and where’s home for you?

Dr. Denison: Well, I live in Nashville, Tennessee. I’ve been there since 1991 with my wife and I guess two of my kids growing kids still live in Nashville. I’m at Vanderbilt university medical center and in the department of pediatrics and pathology. So, I’m the director of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Vanderbilt. So, I still see kids in the hospital as well as doing research in the lab.

Host: Well, I’m sorry that South Dakota has some snow here for you and it’s not a little bit warmer, but we’ll try our best to ramp up that temperature. You’ve been studying coronaviruses as I mentioned since the 1980’s. Can you reflect back on your career thus far and what you’ve seen?

Dr. Denison: Well, it’s a long time, but I think one thing I’ve seen is the need to continue to move research forward, to support it at all levels.

I’ve seen perhaps for the first 25 years or so not a lot of interest in what we did because there were only two known Coronaviruses before SARS that caused human disease and it cost colds. And so, a common refrain from our work would be that’s interesting science, but who cares?

And so that’s something that I think that we learned over time, but I think with the advent of SARS in 2003, 2004, we recognized what we had always predicted is that these viruses could move from one species to another, to cause disease and followed by MURS. And then of course, with COVID, I think we can see the profound potential for them to cause serious illness.

So, our work has been sort of in parallel with that, right? The context of doing very fundamental science to discover how a virus works and how we can stop it with this emergence in this continuous emergence of new potentially pandemic viruses. Unfortunately, now manifesting as COVID.

Host: And throughout the course of your career, we have to ask, have you seen anything like COVID-19?

Dr. Denison: I think this in fact is unique in human history. I think even if you go back to the 1918 flu of the black plague, black death, that’s something that has impacted the entire world at the same time with this degree of population, I believe this is a unique event.

So, my career does not go back to the black plague. So, I think I would not be able to comment back there, but I would say that certainly in my career, nothing even comes close to this.

Host: What are some of the biggest wins of your career?

Dr. Denison: Well, they would be things that would put a lot of people to sleep, but I think the discovery that coronavirus has encode unique proteins that are able to help them identify and fix mistakes. This is a novel function it’s called proofreading.

That probably was the basis for the reason we initiated our collaborations with Gilead and with other companies to look at drugs was actually that protein function. So, it was a very kind of geeky fundamental Coronavirus biology question that made us realize that there was something really novel about these viruses in terms of their evolution and the ability to actually inhibit.

Host: You and your team worked for years to find a drug that would be effective in the fight against Coronaviruses, and eventually were able to find that with REM desert, how relieved were you when it received FDA approval?

Dr. Denison: Having worked on it for like six or seven years, what was remarkable in a sad way, but a good way was the timing of that, that we had just really completed all of the work showing what a really outstanding antiviral drug this was when this happened.

And so, the ability to quickly get this into people in the first case, into China and then into the United States, and trials was profound to us. And leading to the FDA authorization was a very exciting day.

Host: Let’s switch gears now and talk about the Lorraine cross. What was going through your mind when you learned that you were a finalist and what’s that recognition mean to you?

Dr. Denison: Well, I have to be completely frank. I had several phone calls that I ignored because someone said you’ve won a prize or you may have won a prize.

Host: Did you think it was your car insurance? Those robo-calls? Those are the worst.

Dr. Denison: IRS, car insurance, I was getting so many calls in so many interviews at the time that finally one of my senior lab scientists came in and said, “Mark, I think you need to take this call. I think these people are for real.”

I hadn’t even had time to look. And so, when I got the call and of course was asked, I was sort of overwhelmed. Overwhelmed and delighted. And of course, my second question, because I’d been working in coronaviruses so long or are you sure you didn’t make a mistake. But, no, I’m very honored to be here.

Host: What’s been a highlight about this process?

Dr. Denison: I think the ability to actually reflect over this last six months, because of course the award was delayed because of the peak of the pandemic across the United States back in December. But this idea of time to really reflect on, on what it means from sort of a personal and a professional position, what does a career look like? How do we do this? What obstacles has my team had to overcome in order to keep the work going?

I think that level of reflection is something we don’t get to do very often in science, certainly not encouraged to it’s always move forward, move forward, but I think it’s important. And I think the award allows for that kind of reflection and recognizes long-term contributions that manifest, but never might have manifested. In the case of all three of the nominees, they’re all things that were really out there and, and pushing the boundaries of science to identify something that could be useful to humans.

Host: You mentioned that you were kind of star struck by the other two nominees that you share this with. Talk to me about that relationship.

Dr. Denison: Well, I’ve just gotten to know them. Dr. Welsh I noticed was at Iowa, when I was there as a resident, he was a new on the faculty. So, he’s been there longer than I. Actually, I was in Iowa City from ’80 to ’86 and he came in ’81.

But, but looking at that work. As a pediatrician, I thinking of childhood cancer, thinking of cystic fibrosis, I’m like, yeah, those are, those are the big, those are the big playing fields and they’ve gone after something that’s incredibly important, incredibly important. And with consistent things that have been now applicable and are really changing lives and will continue to change lives.

I think the only difference, but I ponder that a little bit because I think, what am I doing here? I think something about our work is that I was always, always aiming at a horizon that I didn’t know what was there. And that was an unusual place to be, right. It was a, in some ways the dark horizon, and as we got closer to it, it seemed to get darker and more distant with, with the increasing evidence of these viruses capability. But I, but you know, it came back to them that it’s well, it’s, it’s stunning work and a well worthy of all the accolades I’ve had throughout their careers and culminating here.

Host: Can you share what you love most about this life-changing work?

Dr. Denison: Well, I’m still a kid when someone comes to me with their results, I say, “what have you got? Give me, I need something good this week. Tell me something.” “Well, I did, I didn’t do much.” I go, “well, what’d you do?” “Well, I did this experiment and I got this result.” I’ll look at it and jump up and down and I said, “that’s the most amazing thing. Do you ever understand how important that is? That is so cool.”

I think even more than ever, I love the discovery. I say sometimes we like to think of like, if we were going speed clunking, we’d go into some giant cavern and it would have ruby-red stalactites and water dripping from the ceiling. They’d be a thousand feet tall, but most of the time discovery is more like you’re crawling on your belly through a foot-wide cavern in the water, up to your eyeballs and there are salamanders in the water. And, it’s cold and it’s dark. And you come out in a cavern, and the cavern is like two feet in diameter. And, there’s a, two-inch, stalactite hanging from the ceiling. That’s what most discovery is like, but you have to celebrate that discovery too, because that’s 99% of it. That’s 99% of discovery. And you only know the implications of that. Oftentimes in retrospect, looking in the rear view mirror, you only get to see it. And that’s been a wonderful part of this award process.

Host: That leads to my next question. I mean, what keeps you going motivates and inspires you?

Dr. Denison: Well, let’s see, there’s the fear factor. If I don’t get my grants, I don’t have a job. I don’t keep my house. There’s that, but no, not really. Not, not so much anymore. At least not this week.

I think what keeps me motivated is that, that it’s like the six-week project I started with Dr. Stanley Perlman during my training in 1984 is not going on for 38 years. Viruses are like a Nano cosmos. It’s like, instead of going out into the outer cosmos, you’re going inward and inward and inward, and you discover that there is, I call it, I guess I call it the terrible beauty of a viruses. Most of them are totally benign. You know, there’s 10 million viruses in every teaspoon of seawater. There’s a virus sphere that circles over our earth and is probably dropping viruses on us all the time. Most of them are benign. Most of them help us. Most of them prevent diseases, not cause them.

So, I think this this concept of I’m, I’m investigating down to this incredible detail, but how did they evolve? Where did they come from? And then it’s in the context of this tremendous history of evolution and selection of these viruses as more our partners than our enemies. But when there are enemies, boy, they’re bad. And, I think those are the things that keep me driving forward.

And it’s really hard. I think I don’t like to, I’m not an athlete. So I don’t like to say things I don’t know about, but, you know, it feels like I, I feel for a, an athlete at their peak when they are told it’s time to retire in their early forties, you know, and they still feel like they got all that game in them. I always feel like there’s another question. There’s always 10 more questions to answer. I think that’s the main thing that drives forward is I can’t not know the answer and that’s the remain thing that drives it forward.

Host: How would you hope to inspire a new generation of science and medical researchers?

Dr. Denison: First? I can probably, I can give this talk. I can inspire them. I can tell them why it’s so cool, but we have to create infrastructure that allows for those people to thrive at all levels, that we have to create opportunities for them to be able to work on difficult, complicated, or potentially dangerous pathogens without creating barriers that no new investigator could survive.

If they’re trying to set it up and it takes twice as long and twice as expensive, and they get fewer papers over a period of time, they’re academic, that can’t succeed. So, we have to find ways to encourage that and give people opportunities to do it. I call it a recruiting for the NBA in junior high, right.

I think where we need to go is we need to go to the people that are young idealistic. I see my primary goal in training people is to make sure I don’t drive the passion out of them just to make sure I make them understand that, that this is something to continue to be passionate about your whole life. You do not need to lose your passion for this. There’s always a cool question to ask and don’t let the system drive that out of you.

Host: Dr. Denison, thanks again for talking with us.

Dr. Denison: It’s been my pleasure.

Host: Before we wrap up today, I’d like to remind you that Sanford Health ‘Innovations’ podcast is now available on your favorite podcast steps like Apple and Spotify, as well as our website, Sanford Health News.

If you enjoyed this conversation, follow us, give us a thumbs up and share your comments. We do love hearing from you and hope you find these conversations insightful.

Thanks for listening. I’m Simon Floss with Sanford Health News.

Posted In Awards & Recognition, Coronavirus, Innovations, Lorraine Cross, News, Research

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