Fun in the Sun With Doug Learn
Charles River’s phototoxicity expert ensures drug safety in bright conditions
Dr. Doug Learn is the CRL phototoxicity expert, working on safety studies for Charles River’s Safety Assessment site in Horsham. In this work, drugs and chemicals are evaluated for possible phototoxic effects – in other words, whether a drug increase a patient’s sensitivity to sunlight. Phototoxicity can resemble a moderate to severe sunburn and is an important early indicator of a drug’s potentially dangerous side effects.
Dr. Learn has worked for Charles River since May 1998 as a Study Director in Photobiology, and since May 2010 as the Director of Toxicology, responsible for not only phototoxicity but also for other specialty toxicology areas including cell therapy, gene therapy, oncolytic virus and viral-based vaccine safety. He earned his MS and PhD in medical microbiology from West Virginia University, and did his post-doctoral fellowship at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. His previous work for Schering-Plough HealthCare Products (now Bayer) in Memphis, TN as a senior scientist in the Skin Biology and Advanced Product Research groups gave him experience in skin biology, photobiology, phototoxicology along with marketing and other non-scientific business areas.
Dr. Learn’s first paper was published during his PhD work at West Virginia University in 1982, under allergist Eric Bristol, MD. Since switching to photosafety testing, he has published several papers on the subject with colleagues from Charles River and beyond.
“The one that is most relevant for what I do now, was one that I published with Michelle Elliott back in 2016,” Dr. Learn said. “Looking at some of the responses that animals get in phototoxicity studies, we tried to define from a regulatory point of view, the approach that we use to evaluate phototoxicity, especially in vivo.”
In the paper, Dr. Learn and Charles River Veterinary Pathologist Michelle Elliott determine that visual evaluations of research animal response to known phototoxic drugs is usually sufficient to determine toxicity, and that histopathology is not necessary to satisfy toxicity testing regulations. Their findings can save time and materials for researchers who are testing drug safety.
For Dr. Learn, the most satisfying moments of his career have had less to do with experimental results, and more to do with the human side of research.
“The Eureka moments for me are where you have made a profound impact on the lives of others,” Dr. Learn said.
One exciting area of research for Dr. Learn is the potential for gene therapies to cure previously untreatable illnesses. The most direct impact a researcher can have on public health is in the discovery of new therapies, especially for dangerous diseases like cystic fibrosis.
“They're just making an incredible difference in the lives of people and people who live around them,” Dr. Learn said. “Not only the patients themselves, but parents and significant others. At this point in my life, I take a more holistic approach, and there's a lot of those little Eureka moments that really do that.”
The importance of mentors
Dr. Learn sees mentoring as a crucial component of his work at Charles River, and hopes he emulates the people who have helped him in his own career.
“It's really those mentor who I look at as those people who have given me good counsel and guidance over the years,” Dr. Learn said. “Because the lasting impact that all of us have is the impact that we have on the lives of others. And that's, to me, a very important thing. To be able to transfer the knowledge that I have as I go towards succession planning and preparing other people to take over the roles and responsibilities that I have.”
He mentioned many mentors that have helped him through the years, from former boss Laura Crane at Schering-Plough to West Virginia University scientists Robert Burrell and Milton Hales. He also named Charles River colleague Alan Hoberman, the Global Director of Developmental and Reproductive Toxicology, who is at Horsham.
“I believe that every time I talk with Alan, I learn something from him,” said Dr. Learn. “He has such a breadth and wealth of knowledge and provides good counsel. Not only just from the science part of it, but for everything that we do here in the world and being able to relate to other people in other situations in this organization and with Sponsors.”
When it comes to mentoring, Dr. Learn sees a wealth of untapped potential everywhere he looks in Charles River, not just in the scientific ranks.
“I spend a huge amount of time working with the technical and business staff,” he said. “Identifying people who have potential, that spark that tells me they are destined for a good future, and pushing them to achieve things that they may not be aware that they can do. And then supporting them when they want to achieve those things, be that internally with or externally to Charles River. At the end, our legacy lives on in others we have touched, as others who have touched us live on in us. Nothing is more important.”