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UCSD Scientist Earns $3M Life Sciences Award from Facebook, Google Founders

Dr. Napoleone Ferrara was awarded the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, a prize sponsored by Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and others.

A UC San Diego physician and scientist who helped figure out how tumors grow was named today 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.

Other award winners are:

  • Cornelia I. Bargmann, Rockefeller University, who studies the nervous system and human behavior
  • David Botstein, Princeton University, who uses the human genome to map disease biomarkers
  • Lewis C. Cantley, Weill Cornell Medical College, who discovered a family of enzymes related to cell and cancer growth
  • Hans Clevers, Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands, who has parsed how stem cell processes go awry, resulting in cancer
  • Eric S. Lander, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a leader in the Human Genome Project
  • Titia de Lange, Rockefeller University, who studies the protective tips of chromosomes called telomeres
  • Charles L. Sawyer, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who has investigated the signals that prompt a cell to become cancerous
  • Bert Vogelstein, Johns Hopkins University, who developed a model for how colon cancer progresses and discovered a protein that suppresses tumor growth
  • Robert A. Weinberg, MIT, who discovered the first human oncogene
  • Shinya Yamanaka, Kyoto University and Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, for his fundamental research of stem cells

—City News Service

anna.davis February 22, 2013 at 08:55 AM
I question the scale of the awards. I think it shows the level of disconnect between Silicon Valley and biology researchers: To the foundation, 3 million dollars per person appears to be a normal award amount, but I bet all eleven winners would have been just as happy, and far less shocked and confused, with even 10% of the money. Breakthrough scientific research doesn’t come from just a handful of scientists who have already made a name for themselves, but from collaborations between many researchers. While I’m thrilled that the tech community has shown a real interest in the life sciences, I would have liked to see slightly smaller individual prizes, and maybe some money made available by the standard process of application and review to emerging labs, researchers, and initiatives. Preserving a broad network of researchers may in the long run be more rewarding than only awarding the top talent. And when it comes to angiogenesis – two important facts: 1. Judah Folkman first published his concept of tumor angiogenesis in 1978. He postutaled that the recruitment of dedicated blood vessels is essential to tumor growth but he never got a Nobel prize while he was alive. 2. It ia also well known that angiogenesis is a vital function for healthy tissues too, so messing with it causes side effects (Avastin) and in any case just slows down things until cancer cells find a way to dodge the drug (see also HIV drug-resistance evolution; rings a bell?).

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