UCSD molecular biologist wins life sciences prize co-sponsored by Facebook founder


A UC San Diego physician and scientist who helped figure out how tumors grow was named this week as one of 11 inaugural recipients of a prize created by the founders of Facebook and Google.

Dr. Napoleone Ferrara was awarded the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, sponsored by Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, and his wife, Priscilla Chan; Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google and his wife, Anne Wojcicki, founder of the genetics company 23andMe; and Yuri Milner, a Russian businessman and philanthropist who established a similar prize in fundamental physics last year.

Ferrara, a 56-year-old molecular biologist who is senior deputy director for basic sciences at the Moores Cancer Center, was recognized for identifying a gene that promotes the formation of new blood vessels that lead to tumor growth.

His finding led to the subsequent development of two medications -- one that fights breast, brain and colorectal cancer, and another that treats macular degeneration.

“Napoleone’s work has profoundly advanced our basic understanding of how cancer develops and grows,” said Dr. David Brenner, vice chancellor for Health Sciences and dean of the UC San Diego School of Medicine. “More importantly, he helped create brand new drugs and therapies based upon that research to effectively treat a broad range of cancers and other conditions.”

Most of Ferrara’s groundbreaking research was performed at Genentech, a San Francisco-based life sciences firm. He joined UC San Diego last year. He said he didn’t even know the new award existed.

“The thing I am most proud of is that we’ve advanced the understanding of basic mechanisms of cancer and we’ve been able to help people, both in fighting cancer and restoring visual acuity,” Ferrara said. “It’s that kind of work that I’m continuing at Moores Cancer Center, where I’ll be able to work closely with clinicians and develop new clinical trials.”

The Breakthrough Prize honors life scientists who have ambitiously pushed the boundaries of their disciplines, taken risks and impacted lives and society.

Several other recipients study cancer growth, along with stem cells and the human genome. Prize organizers plan to honor five scientists each in future years.

--City News Service