Topol Talks to Ferrara, $3M Breakthrough Prize Winner

; Napoleone Ferrara, MD, PhD


May 02, 2013

In This Article

Breakthrough: A $3 Million Prize

Dr. Topol: We're going to talk about where you're going next, but first I want to get in a bit of information on this Breakthrough Prize. You get this phone call from your old boss, Arthur Levinson (chairman of Genentech).

Dr. Ferrara: Yes.

Dr. Topol: When was that?

Dr. Ferrara: It was maybe 2 weeks ago.

Dr. Topol: Two weeks ago. What was that like? What were you doing at the time?

Dr. Ferrara: In the evening, I saw an email from Art Levinson asking whether I had time to talk with him within the next few days, so I said of course I'm available. It's going to be very nice talking with you. I'd be happy to talk with you.

Dr. Topol: You had no idea what it was about, right?

Dr. Ferrara: No, I didn't have the slightest idea.

Dr. Topol: When did you finally meet up? Was it that evening?

Dr. Ferrara: The same evening.

Dr. Topol: You called him?

Dr. Ferrara: No, I left him my cell phone number and he called me. I was very, very surprised to hear what he had to say.

Dr. Topol: So, he said you won $3 million? How did he convey the news?

Dr. Ferrara: I think he first described this foundation or this prize. He explained that the idea originated with Yuri Milner (a Russian entrepreneur and venture capitalist). It began last year with a similar prize given to 9 physicists, but not being a physicist myself, I didn't know. I was unaware of that.

Then -- I don't know -- maybe it was Art's idea or some other person's idea, that it would be a great initiative to also have a similar prize for life sciences.

Dr. Topol: What was your reaction?

Dr. Ferrara: I was, of course, a little bit incredulous.

Dr. Topol: Did you think it was a joke?

Dr. Ferrara: No, no.

Dr. Topol: No?

Dr. Ferrara: Knowing Art, I didn't think that for a moment.

Dr. Topol: So, he wouldn't joke like that? He's not a prankster?

Dr. Ferrara: I knew it was not a prank because in my interaction with Art, he never made any jokes. He was a very serious person. Whatever he says, you can rely on. You can take him very, very seriously.

Dr. Topol: Now, this is the biggest prize in life sciences in the world. This transcends the Nobel Prize. Obviously, it has a limited heritage of being in the first year. Are they going to do this every year, do you think?

Dr. Ferrara: Yes. What they plan to do is to give it every year, but maybe with fewer people. They will have 5 prizes. All 11 awardees from this year agreed to be the selection committee for next year.

Dr. Topol: Is there going to be a ceremony, like in Stockholm, where they give you a medal or just a check?

Dr. Ferrara: I don't know exactly. I don't really know. I don't think they've decided yet whether they are going to have a ceremony, and so on. I think they did have a ceremony for the physicists.

Dr. Topol: There's been some interest in this because some people say well, these are the most accomplished scientist-researchers in the world, and if they really want to stimulate this field, they should not pick the ones who are the most successful. I disagree with that, but what are your thoughts? It seems like a really great idea.

Dr. Ferrara: Maybe you need to start somewhere. In the future, I think that the fact that there is an open nomination system, that makes things a little bit different. I believe there will be an emphasis on picking people that have an extremely promising career, like there's a so-called rising star, rather than very accomplished people, but of course time will tell.

A Move to UCSD

Dr. Topol: Sure. Now, let's go back. You moved to University of California, San Diego, in January of this year?

Dr. Ferrara: Yes.

Dr. Topol: What are your plans? I'm sure they're big plans, because you only think big. What would you like to accomplish here?

Dr. Ferrara: I have a role in UCSD's Moores Cancer Center. Actually, my other title, besides being a faculty in pathology, is Senior Deputy Director for Basic Science in the Moores Cancer Center. I hope to be a little bit of help in some research areas, maybe in recruiting people or building some basic science, basic research programs, but that would certainly be one of the goals.

I believe my primary goal is to set up my lab and to have a productive lab, and this is what I am doing. I would like to continue in the line of research that I've done so far in angiogenesis. The clinical success with drugs on the market, such as Avastin and Lucentis, and other VEGF inhibitors -- it taught us a lot of lessons. We understood many things, but also, we understood the limitation of these drugs. Some patients do not respond. Some patients become resistant. It would certainly be wonderful to have a greater understanding of this process, such that we can develop additional strategies and novel targets.

What's Next in Therapeutic Angiogenesis

Dr. Topol: The therapeutic angiogenesis field -- where is that going to go next?

Dr. Ferrara: That's a great question. I remember maybe 10-15 years ago, there was lots of excitement about therapeutic angiogenesis, which is taking an angiogenic factor and making new vessels to treat it in limb ischemia or coronary ischemia, and now there's much less excitement. It faded, essentially, because most of the clinical trials were negative. I believe that people were a little bit too optimistic.

They think that just a single administration or few administrations of an angiogenic factor could recreate this function of vascular supply, so the field has had lots of setbacks and is not nearly as advanced as the antiangiogenesis field. But nevertheless, I think there is hope. As we understand more about vascular biology, it will be very clear that we have some probative formulation that can sustain the release of angiogenic factors. That, in a way, may be the field that we'll have some advances in.

Dr. Topol: Some of the lessons I'm getting from our discussion are that you've obviously been a master innovator, but that doesn't come easy. It takes a tremendous amount of dogged persistence, being indefatigable. Is that what you would say?

Dr. Ferrara: Yes, it takes persistence. You need to be in a good place, in a good environment that is conducive to do this research. I think all these things are very important.


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