Darryl Garrison, Chief Operating Officer
Meet Darryl, our Chief Operating Officer. Darryl has more than 20 years of experience in the molecular diagnostic industry. He has been involved in setting up and running molecular clinical laboratories and has been responsible for establishing CLIA (Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments) diagnostics laboratories at many of the major clinical cancer diagnostic laboratories in Southern California. In addition to establishing Micronoma’s CLIA lab, he is assisting with all operations and workflow implementation to ensure that Micronoma is ready for processing patient samples this next year, and putting us squarely on the path to making the difference we set out to make. In this chat, Darryl shares what his life is like as a COO as well as some of the important experiences that lead him to Micronoma.
What’s an average day at work look like for you?
Right now, most of my time is spent getting the CLIA lab setup and making sure we have all the quality systems in place. This involves writing department operation procedures and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and developing a Quality Management System (QMS) to make sure the lab processes and assay are robust. Running a high quality CLIA lab involves setting up a strong Quality Management System.
I’m also responsible for sourcing vendors, purchasing equipment, setting up the backup generator systems and making sure we have a reliable supply of products and supplies. Basically everything we need to ensure the CLIA lab is up and running at all times.
Lastly, we are also customizing a Laboratory Information System (LIS), so we are providing design input and testing that LIS software. I’m always looking at the overall process.
In what areas did you earn your degrees? What inspired this path?
All of my degrees were earned at Cal Poly, Pomona. I have a bachelor’s of science in microbiology and a minor in chemistry, and a master’s of science in molecular biology. After my bachelor’s, I was asked to stay on for my master’s degree in molecular biology and I was responsible for setting up Cal Poly’s first graduate level Molecular Biology laboratory.
What inspired you to be a scientist?
I was always into science classes in high school. I moved into the microbiology program at Cal Poly after starting off in the biology program. I found microbiology to be more interesting than biology. Within the microbiology program I took master’s degree classes in molecular biology and cell biology for my electives. During my master’s program, I was asked to teach biology, microbiology, virology and molecular biology classes.
My first cancer diagnostic job was with the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica trying to develop an assay for early detection of metastatic cancer cells in the blood. This was not a liquid biopsy where one is looking for circulating nucleic acids. We were looking for whole cells or circulating tumor cells (CTCs). We were developing early detection assays for melanoma, lung; any kind of solid tumor. This involved finding genes that you wouldn’t find expressed in the white blood cells of a healthy person. We were looking for those genes and trying to pick up metastatic cancer cells in the blood.
Later, I moved into setting up research laboratories and manufacturing-type labs. I finally moved into the CLIA industry when I applied for a vice president lab director position that I knew I was not yet qualified for! But, it was not all lost… The guy who got the VP job ended up hiring me because he liked that I was proactive and ambitious. It was a fantastic mentorship opportunity.
What were key moments that influenced you on your path to Micronoma?
I moved into the cancer industry because my dad was diagnosed with cancer. I got really interested in developing early detection assays for cancer. My first lab job was at UC San Diego. where we were developing microarray technology. I was trying to get into any kind of new technology that could have any spin on cancer research or diagnostics. Microarray technology allows you to look at gene expression levels of thousands of genes by comparing mRNA levels of normal cells to cancer cells. From there, I went to the John Wayne Cancer Institute; they were doing metastatic tumor cells–it was a really new field back then. We would just isolate white blood cell pellets and look at mRNA expression. We didn’t even consider plasma at that time because free floating DNA in the plasma had not been discovered.
Getting into the CLIA industry is what got me all the way to Micronoma. I started off as a clinical lab scientist (CLS) and quickly moved up because upper management saw that I was proactive and more of a big picture person. My first CLIA position was at Clarient, one of the first cancer diagnostic companies, later acquired by GE and then Neogenomics.
But back then, it was still a smaller company and it prepared me to assist future start-ups in setting up their CLIA labs from the ground up. After Clarient, I was recruited by Neogenomics because they wanted to start a West Coast CLIA lab and set this entity up.
What are you passionate about with Micronoma?
The thing that is most interesting to me is Micronoma’s technology and the assay that we are developing. As I said before, I like to move into new technologies. When I saw their technology and how different it was, I wanted to be involved. It’s a real game changing technology and something that is going to help a lot of people. That is also why I like working at CLIA labs. Every time you start a new CLIA lab, you are helping save a lot of people’s lives. Saving people’s lives is the most important motivator and I wanted to come to Micronoma because their technology can do a lot of good for cancer diagnostics.
How has cancer personally impacted you?
Both my Dad and Mom died from cancer. My mom was diagnosed with an aggressive type of leukemia; AML. My dad died of prostate cancer. Having both my parents die from cancer made me realize how early cancer detection could save lives.
What gets you most excited about Micronoma’s future?
The number of different kinds of assays we want to produce is what gets me most excited about Micronoma’s future. Once people are past the original surprise of the concept of using microbiome cancer detection (“Microbial signatures in your blood? How can that be?”) then the technology should really take off very quickly. In the early days, microbes in the blood were usually thought of as sepsis. But, the microbial signatures we are looking for in the blood are pieces of DNA, not live microbes in the blood. This microbial DNA is partially coming from the tumor cells so when the body attacks the cancer it starts to release its pieces of microbial DNA. And some of it may be the representation of microbial cells being recruited by the host as a mediator in the inflammatory response to oncogenesis.
What will success look like for you at Micronoma?
A lot of companies out there say they can do early detection, but they are only detecting stage III and IV cancer. That is not early detection. Micronoma’s technology actually works really well in stage I and II cancers. So success will be associated with the ability, through a robust lab, to be able to analyze thousands of samples a week and continue to develop and validate new cancer assays.
Do you have any hidden talents or hobbies?
Staying out of trouble! And, I like to go kayaking. I have 2 chocolate labs right now. I always have 2 labs spaced apart so when one passes I can get a puppy and the surviving dog can raise it. Raising them and taking care of them is a great hobby.