It’s estimated every 10 minutes in the U.S., someone is added to the national transplant waiting list. Unfortunately, 22 people die every day while waiting for an organ to become available, and that doesn’t include the thousands of patients who can’t even get on the list…Our scientists are developing fully functioning livers, kidneys and hearts with the ultimate goal of developing patient-specific human organs. Basically, our unique perfusion decellularization process essentially washes out the cells from a discarded pig organ, leaving all of the blood vessels and microstructures (matrix) that define that organ intact. Our groundbreaking technology then introduces human cells into the organ matrix, recellularizing it, thus bioengineering a new organ.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Jeff Ross, CEO of Miromatrix, a Minnesota-based biotechnology company on a mission to save and drastically improve patients’ lives by eliminating the organ transplant waiting list. Dr. Ross brings more than 20 years of biomedical research, management and regulatory experience in regenerative medicine, biologics and medical devices to Miromatrix including concept development, preclinical, clinical, manufacturing and commercialization. He has spearheaded development, global patent strategy, and fundraising for the revolutionary whole organ transplant program and its key decellularization technology, and he has over 30 patents along with scientific publications in Nature and other peer-reviewed journals.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always been driven by the desire to help people, and because of that passion, I was drawn to medicine and research. Growing up, I was intrigued by how things were built and worked, often taking them apart to see the inner workings then rebuilding them. I was convinced I wanted to be a doctor. At college, I pursued the path towards medical school but also took an early interest in undergraduate research starting my first year. In my third year, one of my research professors, who was also a medical school professor, pulled me aside and said, “I usually don’t get involved in things like this, but you’re very talented in research and should consider it instead of medical school.” His advice and encouragement inspired me to hold off on medical school and explore research in greater depth at the University of Minnesota’s Developmental Biology Department and at a Howard Hughes Medical Institute-funded lab. That phenomenal experience ultimately shaped my future. I was able to work with and learn from amazing people, as well as get my first co-authored study published in Nature. It was there that I began to understand my true desire to go into medicine and the revelation of how I could help people in a different way. As a physician, you can help patients one-on-one. As a scientist/researcher/entrepreneur, I discovered I could create new tools and therapies that could help thousands, even millions, of people. Even though I won’t get a chance to meet them face-to-face, the potential impact is tremendous. That experience and revelation led me to pursue a master’s degree in biomedical engineering and a Ph.D. in molecular, cellular and developmental biology.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
You never know where or when amazing opportunities will happen! When I was studying to get my master’s degree, a career fair was taking place in one of the halls on campus. I wasn’t looking for a job at the time and only walked through it to get a free soda. I stopped at one of the tables — which happened to be for Guidant — and they quickly became intrigued by my background. They encouraged me to interview with their company, even though I wasn’t going to be finished with my studies for another year. Eight interviews later, they offered me a job, a year before my graduation date. That shortcut to get a soda ultimately led me into regenerative medicine and was a springboard for where I am today.
Fast forward to 2018: I was in Japan for a conference talking about the lifesaving biotechnology my company, Miromatrix, is developing. After I spoke, a woman came up to me nearly in tears. She announced she’s a recent liver transplant recipient and told me about the fear and frustration she had to endure while waiting two years to receive her organ. She was so moved by the work we’re doing to create fully implantable human organs that she had to share her story with me. That moment was so intense and really emphasized that while we may not see breakthroughs every day, it’s always important to remember the larger picture and what we are doing can change patients’ lives.
Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
It’s estimated every 10 minutes in the U.S., someone is added to the national transplant waiting list. Unfortunately, 22 people die every day while waiting for an organ to become available, and that doesn’t include the thousands of patients who can’t even get on the list. That’s why our team at Miromatrix Medical is on a mission to save and drastically improve patients’ lives by eliminating the organ transplant waiting list. Founded in 2009 from a breakthrough process of perfusion decellularization and recellularization developed at the University of Minnesota, our scientists are developing fully functioning livers, kidneys and hearts with the ultimate goal of developing patient-specific human organs. Basically, our unique perfusion decellularization process essentially washes out the cells from a discarded pig organ, leaving all of the blood vessels and microstructures (matrix) that define that organ intact. Our groundbreaking technology then introduces human cells into the organ matrix, recellularizing it, thus bioengineering a new organ.
How do you think this might change the world?
Take patients living with kidney diseases, for example: 850 million people worldwide are currently affected, and more than 40 million are Americans. Of those, more than 700,000 are living with kidney failure that requires dialysis or transplantation. Unfortunately, less than half of the patients who start dialysis will survive five years, while those fortunate to receive a kidney transplant have a more than 90% survival rate. Our mission is to dramatically reduce the number of patients on dialysis, as well as save millions of lives around the world by eliminating the kidney transplant waiting list with a new source of transplantable kidneys. But there’s also a dire need for alternative therapies and solutions for those dealing with heart, liver and lung failure. Our ultimate goal is to develop fully functional transplantable organs so they can be life-saving game-changers for those in need worldwide.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
I’ve often been asked, “This is all good — but if you extend people’s lives by 20 or 30 years with new organs, what kind of strain will that put on our healthcare system?” Our goal is that our bioengineered organs not only extend people’s lives, they’ll also improve their quality of life. Studies show more than 90% of those receiving dialysis are also classified as disabled. By giving them readily available, life-saving organs, we can drastically reduce the yearly costs of dialysis and help those patients get back into society.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
Our company was born out of research from the University of Minnesota. Scientists Harald Ott and Doris Taylor were able to strip the cells (decellularize) from the heart of an adult rat while keeping its overall structure (matrix) intact. They then introduced new heart cells back into it, and after just 8 days, the heart started beating again. Overnight, this transformed the potential of tissue engineering from thin simple tissues, into complex tissues and organs with intact vasculature.
We’re taking that groundbreaking process a step further by showing both how clinically relevant this type of tissue engineering can be, as well as how it can be used to create a truly transformative therapy in the form of fully transplantable biologic organs.
For example, we developed and commercialized the only liver-derived biological products called MIROMESH® (soft tissue reinforcement) and MIRODERM® (advanced wound care). We have positive data for thousands of patients who have been implanted with these products, and we have recently finished two prospective clinical trials on them. Most importantly, there have been no reported immune-related issues with the implantation of either. Those products and their respective studies have allowed us to de-risk our approach and demonstrate the ability to utilize a pig source as the starting organ matrix, which was something that was already being discarded, and seed them with human cells.
We are preparing to publish the results that show we can revascularize an organ, place it back into a large animal, and get sustained perfusion. Following this publication, we are also preparing to publish our results demonstrating the initial functionality of our bioengineered organs. This will be our next big tipping point and the step toward human trials.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
We’re not just creating a new, better device. There simply aren’t enough life-saving livers, not enough kidneys, not enough hearts and lungs available for those who need them. We believe adoption is going to be rapid because there are no other alternatives. We’re providing a new therapy for those who don’t have access to a therapy today.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
When potential investors and collaborators see how we can decellularize then recellularize an organ, in conjunction with our solid preclinical data, they’re incredibly interested and excited! We’ve been honored recently to receive two big recognitions. We were named the 2019 Buzz of BIO’s Pipelines of Promise winner, which earned us an opportunity to present our groundbreaking technology to investors and companies during the BIO International Convention in Philadelphia.
Miromatrix was also among a select group this year to be awarded the KidneyX Redesign Dialysis Phase I award. KidneyX is a partnership between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the American Society of Nephrology, and it aims to accelerate the development of innovative solutions that can prevent, diagnose, and/or treat kidney diseases. By working together with these wonderful organizations, we hope we can reach that goal faster. That, along with the recent Executive Order on Advancing American Kidney Health and HHS’s plans to increase the availability of transplantable organs and invest in bioartificial organs, further enhance our plan to eliminate the organ transplant waiting list.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I come from a long-standing blue-collar background, and my grandpa was an electrician. He was of the generation and mindset that you didn’t need to go to college; instead, you should go straight to work and into a trade. When I was in high school, I vividly recall overhearing my grandpa talking to a couple of his friends, and he was very passionate about how college wasn’t important and why trades were. He then paused and said, “Except for Jeff. He needs to go to college.” He said he believed he saw something special in me and that I had tremendous potential I needed to explore. It was so moving to see that level of faith in me, and I’ve never forgotten it.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
In addition to Miromatrix’s goal of giving people longer lives and more time with their spouses, children and grandchildren, I personally believe it’s vital to give back to society in other ways. I was a volunteer firefighter for eight years and currently am an elected school board member. One of my passions outside of science is public education — both my wife and I are products of the public school system. I believe strongly that our public schools should be of the quality where all children get a phenomenal education, and by being on the board, I can help contribute to that mission.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Someone will always tell you the 10 reasons it will not work.
No matter what idea you come up with, there is always going to be someone who will be quick to dismiss it and is quick to tell you all the reasons why it won’t work. That’s why so many great ideas don’t go anywhere. Your job is to find the one reason it will work and get them to admit it!
2. Words matter.
Be mindful of what you say, because words matter and impact what you believe. This is something I tell my daughters all the time. Optimists are successful because they say positive things that reinforce their beliefs. If you say something negative enough times, it becomes your position, and you start to believe it. If you say things can’t be done or don’t work too many times, they won’t. Words are powerful.
3. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.
When we’re doing something very difficult or something that hasn’t been done before, it’s easy at times to dig in too deeply and make the situation or problem more complicated than it really is. We need to be careful to not let our past failures or the issues that tripped up other people bias the way we tackle the challenge. Sometimes, ignorance truly is bliss, especially when we’re able to approach a difficult situation and aren’t biased by the size of the obstacle.
4. Know thyself.
Many people, especially CEOs, have a tendency to try to be great at everything. It’s important, however, that we become aware of what we’re good at and which areas need improvement. Being honest with ourselves allows us to be better managers and be more effective. It also gives us the opportunity to be self-aware and surround ourselves with those who are strong in areas that we are not. Put your ego aside and know thyself.
5. Follow your passion.
No matter what you do in life, you’re going to be more successful if you’re passionate about it. If you’re doing it to fill a void or a time, you’re not going to be. Whatever career path you take, you’re going to spend a lot of time doing it, so make sure you’re passionate about what you do. It will drive you to be successful.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would love to inspire a movement where every person feels the need to serve society and give back, whether it’s a day, a week or longer term. It allows you to truly put yourself in other’s shoes and gain additional perspectives while serving others. I believe our society would be much better off if we helped each other in both big and small ways.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes comes from Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, the “father of open-heart surgery” and a pioneer of using the first small, external, portable battery-powered pacemaker. Dr. Lillehei said, “What mankind can dream, research and technology can achieve.” For me, this quote has been a driving force. I believe those of us who are working in transformational fields and are creating new and exciting therapies have the ability to affect millions of lives. We’re trying to do the impossible each and every day, but if we don’t believe in our dream, we won’t be able to achieve it. The belief that it’s possible will drive us to turn the impossible into the possible.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Miromatrix is driving the race to develop the first bioengineered organ. Through our groundbreaking, proprietary perfusion decellularization and recellularization technology, we’re revolutionizing regenerative medicine by creating fully implantable human organs including livers, kidneys, lungs and hearts. Our mission is to save and drastically improve millions of lives by eliminating the organ transplant waiting list. Our solid preclinical data is fueling our path to success and has attracted the attention of policymakers, investors and collaborators worldwide. We see the potential to alleviate one of the major healthcare issues in the world — not having enough transplantable organs.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.