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UCSD Researcher Surprised By New $3 Million Prize

February 26, 2013 1:14 p.m.


Dr. Napoleone Ferrara, Senior Deputy Director for Basic Sciences at UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center

Related Story: UCSD Researcher Surprised To Win $3 Million Breakthrough Prize In Life Sciences


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: Have you ever heard of the breakthrough prize in life sciences before? The one with the $3 million prize for each winner? No? Neither had the San Diego scientist who won one of these prizes last week! And that's because it is part of a new initiative to make scientists feel as rewarded as a Hollywood star feels getting an Oscar, for example. The breakthrough prize are aims to elevate scientists so we see them as being as heroic as our favorite football player! Napoleon Ferrara is with UCSD's Moors pathology center, thank you so much for joining us.

FERRARA: My pleasure to be here.

ST. JOHN: First of all, congratulations on being one of the 11 scientists who won $3 million!

FERRARA: Oh, thank you.

ST. JOHN: What did it feel like when you were first told? Just last week, right?

FERRARA: Yes, to say the at least, it was a surprise. Should I wear this

ST. JOHN: That's fine, that's fine. But you can come a little closer to the mic.

FERRARA: Is this better?

ST. JOHN: That's better. Go ahead. So how did you feel when you got the award?

FERRARA: Well, to say the at least, I was very surprised because I was contacted by the chairman's committee who informed me we instituted a new prize, new award, the previous award in physics from the previous year, which I must say I didn't hear about that. And this physics prize was the same, you know, magnitude as the life science prize. Not being a physicist, I was not aware of that. So I was very pleasantly surprised to be among the winners.

ST. JOHN: $3 million! You're going to have to decide what to do with that. One of the reasons I think scientists don't get as much fame as football players is because we sometimes have a hard time understanding what it is that you do. Your work is said to have revolutionized the quality of life for many of the million people in the United States who have a form of macular degeneration. But can you tell us in layman's terms what your very much focused on and what is affects lives?

FERRARA: Yes, my work started as basic research. Almost 30 years ago when I was a post- doc at university of California in San Francisco. And I was actually studying the pituitary gland, which is one of the most important organs, and isolating some cells, and I discovered they produce some activity which makes blood vessels grow. And this of course is one of the most important, fundamental fizz lodge colprocesses.

ST. JOHN: Does it relate to cancer?

FERRARA: It does, it does. It is primarily a physiological process because it's very difficult stoimagine any growth process without development of blood vessels. People discovered many decades ago that tumors as well as eye disorders that you had mentioned are characterized by lots of blood vessels. In cancers, the blood vessels bring nutrients, you know, so they provide an advantage to the cells.

ST. JOHN: I see. So that's why it's so valuable to look at the blood vessels.


ST. JOHN: One of the founders of the award described it for scientists who think big, take risk, and should a significant impact on our lives. Did you feel like you had to take a lot of risks to get where you are today?

FERRARA: Well, you're always taking a risk when you do something different. I think it's probably if you choose I career in science, I think you -- a little bit so. I was trained as a physician with a medical degree although I don't really practice medicine. The conventional wisdom, practicing medicine would be safer to do, perhaps more financially rewarding. But science is more interesting to me. So I decided to go in that direction even though it was at least in theory, in principle, less rewarding. So there is some kind of risk.

ST. JOHN: Do you think that a lot of young people today are facing that choice between perhaps becoming a doctor that is a more secure income and the risk of becoming a scientist, where is it possible that if you had not made these discoveries, you would not be doing so well today?

FERRARA: Absolutely. I think it's worth doing that. It's up to individuals. You're right. Many people today do not choose to pursue a career in science, even those who start a career in the science prefer to move into different areas like the financial or other activities. But if you enjoy science, I think it's very hard to find anything as rewarding, as exciting as that.

ST. JOHN: Was it a mentor of yours who sort of changed your trajectory at a young age from going from the safer profession to going into research?

FERRARA: You're right! It was, actually. It was. It was a mentor when I was still in Italy, and a professor of ecology, the one who dressed me, guided me as a researcher. I was able to get a fellowship at UCSF, that's what really was the beginning of my career.

ST. JOHN: So this is something -- would you say there's room for more young people to get into the field of research these days, that in fact it's a door that not enough young people open?

FERRARA: I totally agree. I think this is one of the very nice things about this reward because it creates lots of attention, considering the sponsor for this award, you know. I hope we jeperated some kind of stimulus for young people to be interested in research because it should not be perceived as a boring, tedious activity where you spend decades in an unrewarding way. If you do well, if you happen to find something interesting, there can be rewards. And I think this is a very important message.

ST. JOHN: One of the founders of this breakthrough prize said curing a disease should be worth more than a touchdown, which I thought was an interesting statement because as a scientist you field like our culture perhaps has its priorities mixed up a bit, that we give a lot more attention to sports for example than scientific achievement?

FERRARA: It is possible. Many people have already pointed out in this -- previously, that's the way our society is. Of course having somebody to entertain us and allowing to spend some relaxing hours on the weekend is wonderful. But we should not forget the people who spend their entire life attempting to increase our quality of life, should deserve should reward as well.

MAUREEN ST. JOHN: Right. So I think it's getting more and more difficult for the average layperson to really understand the frontiers of science, even if you get one of the popular scientific magazine, it seems to be getting increasingly difficult to sort of understand where science is going. Would you think that's perhaps part of the challenge that science faces now to get more people engaged in research?

FERRARA: I think that is certainly part of the problem. Science has become very complex. So it's even difficult to grasp some -- going beyond the simple concepts is a big challenge. I think probably educate, we should do a better job by making science more accessible and perhaps more exciting to younger people.

ST. JOHN: Okay. You just came to UCSD six weeks.


ST. JOHN: And you had a long career with gennentech in San Francisco. That's where you did a lot of your groundbreaking work on how tumors grow. Tell us a bit about how that worked.

FERRARA: I think it was -- yeah, it was a little bit if I may say so, one of the risks. I was a post-doc at UCSF, and the conventional wisdom would have been to seek an academic position, to go to work at the university. Especially 25 years ago, raising into industry would raise some eyebrows. It was not as prestigious as going to a university. But I think I pay more intention attention to the substance rather than to the appearance. And I thought the quality of the science that was going on there, the strength in molecular biology and other fields, I thought this was the best place to do my work. And I think it was a great decision at the time to join genentech, because it probably would have been difficult to do the same thing in other places.

ST. JOHN: I know UCSD pulled out all the stops to get to you come here because of what happened with your work there, it resulted in the development of two drugs that changed the quality of life for cancer patients. Tell us about those.

FERRARA: Well, we developed a drug based on my research, we've been able to identify the critical growth factor which induced blood vessel growth. And this seems to be important in many, many processes, in embryonic development, in reproduction, in bodily growth. The important thing seems to be involving tumor genesis, and genesis associated with the macular degeneration. So we developed two different programs to block it, one we developed a monochromal antibody, which was in the late '90s, in 1997. And by 2003 we had definitive evidence that adding this antibody to chemotherapy is beneficial.

ST. JOHN: So your research went into making that drug possible.


ST. JOHN: What drew you to UCSD?

FERRARA: First of all, I've always been a kind of -- intrigued by universities. I had some opportunities to go to academia, to UCSF ten years ago. But at the time I didn't feel it was the right thing to do because my work was not finished. And I think it was I believe the right decision to stay at gennentech. But I believe going to UCSD represents great opportunity. The Moors cancer center is a great place to combine this best research, in a center which takes care of patients can provide some different opportunity as opposed to a place where there is only research like gennentech.

ST. JOHN: Will you be involved in teaching at all?

FERRARA: I think a little bit. I don't believe that teaching is a major, you know, responsibility. But and I said certainly that, it's wonderful to be able to teach, even though I've done this until even previously. When I was at gennentech, I taught courses even though not in a formally structured academic program.

ST. JOHN: So have you thought about how you're going to spend this $3 million in prize money? Would it be a vacation or your research or some kind of teaching?

FERRARA: Well, I guess the first half is already spoken for. This is going to be in taxes, I guess. So that's the first half. But the rest we have not really made any precise plan. I think there will be lots of nice things that myself and my wife would like to do, but I think we'll take our time to decide it.

ST. JOHN: Okay. And what is the direction of your research? Are you going to continue along the same line? Looking at blood vessel growth?

FERRARA: I think it's a great field. It's a very -- a field which is very promising and rich in opportunity. And the success of some of the drugs that we developed raise a lot of questions. The clinical data point out not only the strength but maybe the limitations. I would like to understand how to do better, find the additional targets and understand, for example, why some patients respond to this drug and not others. That's why being in a clinical center, like the cancer center could be really a great place to be.

ST. JOHN: What do you think the future of cancer research looks like?

FERRARA: Well, the future of cancer research seems to be very bright because we reached some concentration where there is an immense amount of data after the genomic revolution. I believe in the next decades there will be it's it's very likely there will be measured progress.

ST: John: That's good to hear. Thank you so much for joining us.

FERRARA: Thank you.

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