Name and Title: Kent Leach, PhD; Lawrence J. Ellison Endowed Chair of Musculoskeletal Research, Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Biomedical Engineering; UC Davis
Profile (education, etc.): I am a first generation college student who grew up in Arkansas. I completed my undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Arkansas and had the pleasure of witnessing nearly every game of a national championship in men’s college basketball in 1994. After working for a laboratory testing soil and water samples for the EPA for 9 months, I returned to graduate school and earned my PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Oklahoma. I then completed a postdoctoral fellowship in biomaterials and tissue engineering at the University of Michigan and Harvard University. I started my independent faculty position in 2005 at UC Davis in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and then I was jointly appointed as a professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery in 2012. In January 2021, I was appointed as the new Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Biomedical Materials Research Part A, the official journal of the Society For Biomaterials (SFB). I was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) in 2017 and as a Fellow of the Biomedical Engineering Society in 2018. I hold many leadership roles in my scientific communities including membership on the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine International Society (TERMIS) America’s Council, Board of Directors of BMES, and Member-at-Large of the International Society of Fracture Repair within the Orthopaedic Research Society (ORS).
Who has been (have been) your mentor(s)? I am fortunate to have received outstanding mentorship from many individuals in my career, even those beyond academics or science. It is common for me to reach out to trusted individuals who are more senior, at my career stage, or even more junior than me. I have been mentored by Ed O’Rear, David Mooney, Simon Cherry, Alyssa Panitch, Kyriacos Athanasiou, Andrés García, Robert Guldberg, and many others. I can’t emphasize enough the value of great mentors who are willing to support your goals and aspirations, both professional and personal!
Specific Area of Interest: I am interested in designing and translating engineered biomaterials to instruct cell fate and promote musculoskeletal repair. We utilize a host of natural and synthetic materials that are implantable or injectable and serve as platforms for cell- and drug delivery, engineered replacement tissues, or model systems to study normal or pathological changes in cell behavior.
What are you currently working on? My lab is working on a number of diverse projects that are funded by the NIH, NSF, and foundations. We are studying the influence of hydrogel biophysical properties on the bone-forming potential of mesenchymal stromal cell spheroids. This has been an exciting area of research over the last 5 years that revealed the importance of adhesive ligand density, elastic modulus, and viscoelasticity in hydrogels when used as spheroid carriers. In collaboration with Dr. Eben Alsberg (University of Illinois, Chicago), we are testing the role of biophysical and biochemical gradients on bone and cartilage formation. In collaboration with Dr. Scott Simon (UC Davis BME), we are engineering the response of immune cells to infection which has implications for infected implants and wound resolution. UC Davis is the first American academic institution with a federally funded grant to develop clean meat, and we are applying tissue engineered principles of skeletal muscle and biomaterials to fabricate thicker cultured meat in collaboration with Drs. David Block, Keith Baar, Lucas Smith, Karen McDonald and others. We are working closely with orthopaedic surgeons such as Drs. Lor Randall, Steve Thorpe (both at UC Davis), and Kurt Weiss (University of Pittsburgh) to study osteosarcoma in a controlled environment. Lastly, we have a new project that just launched with Dr. Chelsea Bahney (SPRI) and Dr. Mark Lee (UC Davis Orthopaedic Surgery) to instruct MSC spheroids using cell-secreted extracellular matrix. We have found this matrix to be particularly useful in promoting cell survival and instructing cells in situ.
What has been the biggest challenge/issue for you lately in your research? I treasure regular interaction with my team to discuss and troubleshoot research in a face-to-face setting. It is difficult to remain connected in this pandemic and support the trainees in the most effective manner.
What project(s) are you looking forward to in the near future? We are working in two new areas: 1) developing model systems for studying the growth and metastasis of osteosarcoma (with Drs. Randall, Thorpe, and Janai Carr-Ascher, UC Davis Orthopaedic Surgery and Internal Medicine); and 2) studying the influence of senescent cells on musculoskeletal health with a particular focus on bone regeneration.
When not in the lab, what do you like to do for fun? Over the last year, I have taken up road biking. Northern California is a fantastic place to ride, with great weather and many incredible views.
What was the last book you read for fun and would you recommend it? Last weekend, I read Dan Rather’s “What Unites Us”. It was fantastic, and I recommend it for anyone.
What is the most unusual/unexpected item sitting on your desk right now? A Lego of Big Papi (David Ortiz), one of my favorite players in Boston Red Sox history.
Watch the video interview with Dr. Leach.