Jim Dalton: First-generation college student, success beyond his wildest dreams

February 10, 2020
Contact: Mike Wood mwoodmw@umich.edu

Jim Dalton was a first generation college student from a small town in Ohio, but he went on to discover a new drug that promotes human muscle growth, and is now the Dean of the College of Pharmacy at the University of Michigan. Jim’s story shows how the road to success can be bumpy, but if you’re willing to adapt, it can be very rewarding.

Mike Wood: Welcome back to another episode of Michigan News. Beyond the Headlines, I’m Mike Wood. I’m a video producer here at Michigan News. And I also run the Michigan News Studio, which is where we are now in my job. I put U of M faculty on the air, on major TV and radio networks around the world. But today, we’re going beyond the headlines. Jim Dalton is the dean of the College of Pharmacy here at the University of Michigan and has been for the past five years prior to coming to the U of M. Jim was a vice president and chief scientific officer of a pharmaceutical company called GTX. He’s widely recognized for his research on selective androgen receptor modulators, SARMS for short, which opened a new area of research into human muscle growth. His name is on over 400 patent applications related to his research, and he’s with us today.

Welcome, Jim.

Jim Dalton: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Wood: I’ll start out with the big question. What does one do as the dean of the College of Pharmacy here at U of M.

Dalton: So we have about 500 students in the College of Pharmacy, and anything it takes to keep that program going or the research and clinical practice around it falls under my purview.

Wood: How many faculty members do you have?

Dalton: We have 76 faculty. They’re split evenly between tenure track and clinical track.

Wood: So most people think a pharmacy, they think of the neighborhood pharmacist. What percentage of the students go into being your pharmacist at the corner drugstore?

Dalton: Yeah, this is one of the biggest misconceptions, I think, about pharmacy in general. If you look at our graduates from our doctor pharmacy program, only about one quarter of them actually go into work in community or retail pharmacy, which you commonly think of as the person in the white coat behind the counter at a CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid or ecetera. The remaining 75 percent of our graduates go on to— a lot of them go on to a residency for one or two years and then they take advanced clinical positions in a hospital. About another fifteen percent will go into— into jobs in the pharmaceutical industry. It’s just a— it’s a lot more than it looks like from the surface, whether it be participating in patient care, direct patient care in the hospital or working in a company or some other governmental organization, you know, overseeing drug therapy or drug development. There’s a lot that’s not known.

Wood: I didn’t realize that. What are androgen receptor modulators?

Dalton: Androgen receptor modulators is a mouthful. I abbreviate them as SARMS. So “S-A-R-M-S”, selective androgen receptor modulators. While I was a faculty member in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Tennessee, we were working to try to make some new drugs to treat prostate cancer. And one of my graduate students, Arnab Mukherjee walked into my office one morning and told me they had the worst data ever in terms of trying to inhibit the action of this receptor, the androgen receptor, which is important for prostate cancer. It didn’t take us long to figure out that we were really onto something completely 180 degrees from where we’d begun, but something important. So SARMS are simply molecules that work through this receptor. It’s the same receptor that testosterone acts through. And we’ve learned and shown through the years that they can stimulate muscle and bone growth without having some of the negative effects of testosterone, as you might think. And we learned that there’s— we call them selective because they can work selectively on the muscle and bone and leave away some of these other tissues and unwanted effects, which really opens up the door to other things that you can do therapeutically.

Wood: So you guys basically came up with— can it be called the drug or is it so a drug?

Dalton: Its an investigational drug right now, yeah.

Wood: That can actually grow muscle or muscle tissue?

Dalton: Yeah. So it can—we’ve it’s been I think we took it through about 27 clinical trials. About seventeen hundred patients have taken this drug at one time or another and we looked at a number of things, first of all just proving that it was safe to give to people, and then looking at what it does to the— to the human body, men and women. And we spent a lot of time looking at how it changes physical function.

Wood: What did you do at that point?

Dalton: As a professor, you’re— one of the first things you’re faced with is trying to decide whether you publish this exciting new discovery and try to get it into a good journal or patent it. And we did both, we got our patent and before we published it and we were thankful that we patented it. And then a friend of mine had just started a small company in Memphis at that time called GTX. And I thought that was a great opportunity for us to take this discovery. He and I were good trusted friends and scientific collaborators, so we licensed it from the university out into the company. I think back in 1997, 2000 timeframe was when we made our first license.

Wood: So then what’s the process? I know the FDA must get involved and you must have to prove it and prove it and prove it again.

Dalton: Yeah, as you can guess, from doing 27 trials and patients, it’s a long and drawn out process. I had moved from University of Tennessee to Ohio State at about that time, and had to make the decision, quite frankly, as to what I wanted to do with my my career and, you know, this drug discovery. So I opted to take an entrepreneurial leave of absence from the university, which allowed me two years to start working in the companies, still keeping my things going on at the university and just see how far we could push this along. And ultimately in 2007, I took the jump, gave up tenure and jumped full time into the company. And I was there for now until 2014.

Wood: Was it exciting? Was it I mean, it seems like at first it must been— I mean, scary and exciting and all these other things, but what was the feeling like when you think I have this drug that can, you know, have a lot of applications I’m sure?

Dalton: When you have something like this, it really challenges you to think about, you know, what you’re wanting to do with both your career and your— your scientific pursuits. And for me, it just seemed like the natural thing. If I’m— if I’m working in the field of drug discovery, ultimately what I want to determine is whether the drug I’ve discovered can be of benefit to patients—

Wood: And then get it to those patients?

Dalton: And get it to those patients. And so it was risky and exciting, but it’s what I wanted to do. And I thought what better way to really test the science that I’m doing than to try to push it forward to clinical use?

Wood: Nothing ventured, nothing gained kind of thing?

Dalton: Absolutely.

Wood: So what became of it? What happened?

Dalton: Yeah, I mean, it’s a— it’s a sad story in the end, and unfortunately, that’s true for many drugs. If you look at the statistics that you can read in the papers, scientific journals, very few the drugs that we discover make it. We ran it all the way to Phase 3 clinical trials. One of those Phase 3 clinical trials was successful. The other one was not, and it left the company in that time with the decision of repeating a clinical trial which could cost 35 to 40 million dollars or moving onto other things. And unfortunately, we made the—the company made the decision to not move forward. So, the drug is not going to make it through FDA approval. I don’t think it stands that chance anymore.

Wood: Do you hold the patent or is the company—

Dalton: The university still owns the patents and the patents don’t expire until 2024. There’s still a chance. But, you know, there’s a lot of decisions that are important in drug discovery. The science is one thing and the finances and business decisions are the— the other. So I don’t think from an approved standpoint through FDA it’ll ever—it’ll ever see the light of day. What’s fascinating is it’s being used illegally now all over the world. I’m spending a lot of my time now trying to stop that from happening and participating in some of the organizations that prevent that. We’ve demonstrated through a variety of studies that the drug builds muscle and can make people stronger. And what’s happened now is the bodybuilding world and the athletic world has realized that you can use it for performance enhancement. So as best I know now, there are at least a dozen companies in China that are making it illegally. They sell it to other companies which do online marketing for growth supplements, performance enhancement supplements. So you as a bodybuilder or an athlete, if you so desire can log on to the Internet today, type in the word “ostarine” and it will show up in a number of places that you can buy it— labeled as for research purposes only. But these people use it for everything. You’ll also— when you do that, Google search see links to NCAA athletes that have been caught using the drug: MMA fighters, skiers.

Wood: If it does— if it doesn’t harm you and it builds muscle, what’s the harm in them using it?

Dalton: Well, I mean, from a health perspective, it is a fairly safe drug. But, you know, it hasn’t been approved by the FDA and it does have side effects. I think that the issue that the doping communities worry about, in addition to the health effects, which are unknown and part of the health risk is, is that the doses that were used in the clinical trials are much lower than those that most of these athletes that are abusing it decide to take. So they’ll take doses which are 10 to 20 times higher than what we even tried in clinical trials. And I can’t tell you what the safety of that drug is at high doses.

Wood: Well, in whether there’s some dispute or not, the FDA at some point didn’t want to release it to the public. So they had some concerns.

Dalton: Right. And then just the whole ethical thing around being an athlete that’s willing to take something to cheat and win a race, a win— a win some other sort of competition. I work now with the Partnership for Clean Competition. It’s a non-profit that was formed by the United States Olympic Committee, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Major League Baseball, and the National Football League. They invest money in research, which this partnership, the PCC, puts forward to try to combat doping.

Wood: Research to detect it, or research to see what it affects?

Dalton: Research to detect it, research to understand how to stop it, research as to its effects on the body, research around the whole— around the whole area of doping and anti-doping science. And one of the fascinating things about being with this group is you meet— you meet athletes that have been, you know, negatively affected. Just this last year, I met an Olympic skier who got a bronze medal during the last Olympic Games, but found out, you know, two weeks later that two of the Russian athletes had been cheating. And so if they had been caught or hadn’t been cheating, you know, she would have walked away from that Olympic Games with a gold medal, been the one that’s on the Cheerios box and all the other things with it. Instead she comes home, you know, as an athlete with a bronze medal and an asterisk by her name, which has been totally caused by do that, you know, unethically decided to cheat in the sport.

Wood: Is that kind of interesting, being involved in this where it’s kind of takes you out of the academia and all that. And, you know.

Dalton: Yeah, it’s— I love it. I mean, in my prior job as chief scientific officer at GTX, I was science every day, and now being a dean and having the administrative duties that I do, science takes a back seat to that. So this is a way for me to use all this knowledge that’s still floating around the back of my head, get engaged in some important science and— and work with another group of really committed, you know, researchers that are— are trying to stop doping and keep games and races and things like that fair.

Wood: And again, you’re making a difference.

Dalton: I feel like I’m making a difference.

Wood: You know what I mean. I mean, originally when you had that drug, you thought, oh, this can really make a difference. And maybe this is the way—way around the whole thing.

Dalton: That’s right. I mean, I think, you know, when we first discovered the drug, we wanted to make a difference in patients lives. And I think from a scientific and career perspective, I’m glad for what me and my group, it’s many, many people. It’s just not one person that— you know, how far we advanced our knowledge of how these drugs work and how you can change muscle function in a safe way. But that being said, advancing the science is one thing. Getting it approved by FDA is another. And then the last part of, you know, trying to figure out how to keep it from being used for ill purposes, or abused is— is important as well.

Wood: So all that experience, you know, trying to bring a drug to market and discovering something in the private sector, does that give you kind of a unique perspective as the dean that other people that maybe came up just through academia wouldn’t have?

Dalton: I think so. I mean, you know, we in the university spend a lot of time thinking about, you know, commercialization right now. So one of the other things that I’m involved with in the university besides a college of pharmacy is— is Michigan drug discovery. And so it’s it’s a group of about 15 to 20 on the executive committee that oversee the 100 to 200 or more drug discovery projects that are going on at this university. You know, I had one while I was a faculty member at Tennessee. This is the number one public research university in the nation, and so there’s just a whole wide array of people doing these really innovative, creative things. And part of the university’s mission is to make sure that we translate those discoveries and knowledge to the public. And sometimes that’s their education, sometimes through research and service ,and other times we hope it’s through commercialization and development of something which can— can change the world in that way.

Wood: It’s fascinating. So you were recently elected to the National Academy of Medicine. What’s that honor mean to you?

Dalton: It’s humbling. You know, it’s the highest honor I’ve achieved. It’s a recognition of— of all the great work that we did over the years. When I get asked about it, I always first refer to all the outstanding mentors, peers, post-docs and students that I’ve worked with over the years. I feel really fortunate to have some great people to guide me when I was a young graduate student, and an assistant professor myself, and to work with just some fantastic people in recognition of that is, you know, warm and humbling experience.

Wood: Had you been to Ann Arbor before you applied for the job?

Dalton: I had never been to Ann Arbor before I applied for this job. Growing up in Ohio like I did and— and getting my Ph.D. at Ohio State. A lot of people thought that Ann Arbor might be the last place that I’d land, including myself, but I love it here. And I’ve really gotten comfortable with wearing the maize and blue and and cheering them on the weekends with possibly one weekend exception.

Wood: We’ll probably give you that one exclusion. So where did you grow up?

Dalton: I grew up in a small town, Franklin, Ohio, about 12,000 people. It’s located about halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, just off of I-75.

Wood: I think I’ve seen the sign on my way to Kentucky or Tennessee.

Dalton: You certainly have.

Wood: So when you were in Franklin, what did you think you would be when you grew up? Did you always think you’d go to college or like, what did your folks do or what was the climate? You know, when you’re in high school or-

Dalton: Yeah, I’m a first-generation college student. Neither one of my parents, grandparents, none of my first cousins or even their children to this day have still gone to college. So that part of of Ohio, at least for— for my family who moved there from Tennessee in the 1930s, was really a move to find work back in the day. So there are a lot of paper mills in that part of Ohio around the little Miami River. There’s also a steel mill down in Middletown. So a lot of folks moved from Appalachia up to Ohio looking for jobs. And my grandparents were no exception. My father worked at a paper mill. My mother worked as a teller and then a manager at a local savings and loan.

Wood: So what led you to college? I mean, what—just to get out of your little town or-

Dalton: You know my father and mother were, you know, really strong proponents of education and told me from a very young age that, you know, that was the way to get out and do different things if I wanted to. And they just beat it into my head that, you know, you’re gonna go to college and you’ll figure out what you do from there. And I went and just could never stop I guess.

Wood: That’s awesome. Where do you go for undergrad?

Dalton: I went to University of Cincinnati. It was the— you know, my parents, because they hadn’t been to college, really didn’t know much about advising me as to how to even make a choice.

Wood: Right.

Dalton: So I went to the closest college, which was really University of Cincinnati. Went to pharmacy school there, which was a five year program at the time, and it’s 35 minutes from home. I could get home easily if I wanted to and still stay connected to my— to my roots.

Wood: Why did you major in pharmacy or pharmaceutics?

Dalton: I had a great high school chemistry teacher, I always enjoyed the sciences in high school. I had a family friend who is a local hospital pharmacist. Thought I wanted to be a veterinarian for— for many years, but not knowing too much about it. I decided as a high schooler that going to school for college for eight years was just more than I ever wanted to do. So instead, I went pharmacy school for five years, decided to go to graduate school for four years, and then do a post-doc and ended up being there longer than if I’d ever decided to go to veterinary school in the first place.

Wood: It looks like it’s worked out ok.

Dalton: It’s worked out pretty good. As a young boy growing up in Franklin, Ohio, I never thought in a million years that I’d be sitting in Ann Arbor talking about being welcomed into the National Academy of Medicine.

Wood: What do you think your dad would say? He’d say, “You had to get an education— boy get out of here” or “Do you believe it?!”.

Dalton: Yeah, he’d be very proud, as would my mother, and they were very proud with what I had achieved prior to their passing. I know they’d be extremely proud. And they probably asked asked me what the heck it means, but that’s ok too, part of my job is to communicate.

Wood: What advice do you have for young a young person right now that maybe as a first generation college student or just somebody starting out and trying to figure out, “What do I wanna to do for a career, it’s just kind of overwhelming”. Any advice?

Dalton: Just do what’s in front of you, you know, I think it’s really easy to think about. You know, here I am as a high school student or an undergraduate student today, and I—I see a goal, which is to be a doctor, a lawyer, a biologist, a climate scientist, a history teacher, a English teacher, whatever it might be. And my only message is just, you know, do what’s in front of you. Follow your heart and those opportunities, because there’s gonna be a lot of twists and turns along the road. And as long as you follow your passion and what interests you, it’ll all turn out fine.

Wood: So my dad always said, “Don’t be overwhelmed by all the choices, just do the next thing”.

Dalton: Just do the next thing.

Wood: Do something.

Dalton: Yeah it’s a great— it’s great advice. He said it a lot better than I could.

Wood: He was just like, “Do something”. Well, thanks for being here. Really appreciate your time.

Dalton: Thank you, Mike. It’s been great chatting with you.

Wood: To learn more about the College of Pharmacy here at the University of Michigan, you can go to their website. It’s pharmacy.umich.edu. Thanks for listening today. If you liked what you heard, search for Michigan News Beyond the Headlines wherever you get your podcasts. And remember to hit that subscribe button to make sure you don’t miss an episode. If you’re listening to us on Apple Podcast or i-Tunes. Please leave us a review. We really appreciate the feedback. I’d like to thank the whole team here at Michigan News for their support of this podcast, including audio engineer Kirk Lawrence, Nicole Smith, Hans Anderson and Savannah Redlinger handled digital strategy and marketing. And we couldn’t do it without our fearless leaders. News director Laura Lessnau now and associate news director, Bernie de Groat. Thanks for going beyond the headlines with Michigan News, I’m Mike Wood.