As a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco in the mid 1980s, Napoleone Ferrara was studying the pituitary glands of cows when he discovered a substance in the gland cells that spurred the growth of blood vessel cells. In 1988 he joined the San Francisco Bay Area biotech company Genentech, and in 1989, Mr Ferrara and his team identified and cloned a gene for vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), a protein that plays a critical role in angiogenesis, the formation of new blood vessels.
This work has led to two breakthrough drugs now marketed by Genentech: Avastin (bevacizumab), an antibody aimed at treating solid tumours by choking off their blood supply, and Lucentis (ranibizumab), which curbs vision loss from three eye conditions, "wet" age-related macular degeneration (AMD), retinal vein occlusion (RVO) and diabetic macular edema (DME). These conditions occur when abnormal blood vessels grow in or underneath the retina.
First approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2004, Avastin is a therapeutic antibody that blocks new blood vessel formation by inhibiting the function of VEGF. It is currently approved to treat colorectal cancer that has metastasized, extending patient lives by five months on average. The American Cancer Society says colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in the USA. Avastin also is used to treat certain types of lung and kidney cancers.
Lucentis is an antibody fragment that also blocks VEGF. It was approved to treat wet AMD by the US FDA in 2006. AMD is the leading cause of blindness for people over the age of 55. The US Centre of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1.8 million Americans age 40 and older have wet AMD, and an additional 7.3 million are at substantial risk of developing AMD.
Ferrara, currently a Genentech Fellow, will leave Genentech at the end of the year to join an academic institution and will continue to study processes that regulate the blood supply in various situations. In addition, he will investigate the mechanisms of resistance to anti-angiogenic therapies.