The work: Blood vessels are the part of the circulatory system that transports blood throughout the body and also play a vital role in virtually every medical condition. In 1983, Dr. Dvorak reported a tumour-derived protein that caused the cells lining tumor blood vessels to become leaky (hyperpermeable) to circulating molecules. He called the protein vascular permeability factor (VPF). Subsequently, he demonstrated that VPF was also secreted by many normal cells and plays a key role in wound healing and chronic inflammatory diseases. At the same time, Dr. Ferrara noted that cells released a factor that caused cells to divide. This factor stimulated the production of new blood vessels from pre-existing vessels (angiogenesis). In 1989, Dr. Ferrara reported for the first time the isolation and sequencing of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) which, after testing, ended up being the exact same molecule as VPF, and VEGF became its new name.
The impact: Dr. Dvorak’s research demonstrated that most malignant tumors make VEGF, which assists the tumors to grow beyond minimal size by forming new blood vessels and connective tissue support as in wound healing. Dr. Ferrara’s cloning and characterization of VEGF enabled progress in this field. In addition, Dr. Ferrara and his team made key advances in understanding how VEGF was made, how it acted and its role. Importantly, Dr. Ferrara and his colleagues pioneered the clinical development of an inhibiting antibody against VEGF which opened up a new era of cancer therapy because this new approach focused on choking off the blood supply that tumours need in order to grow and spread. These findings also spearheaded the development of an anti-VEGF antibody fragment (ranibizumab) which has shown dramatic efficacy in maintaining and improving vision in wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) patients.
Dr. Ferrara earned his M.D. degree in 1981 from the University of Catania Medical School in Italy. After completing his postdoctoral research at the University of California, San Francisco, he joined Genentech Inc. in 1988. It is there where he spent nearly 25 years working on the molecular characterization and therapeutic applications of VEGF-A, which resulted in the development of bevacizumab, the first anti-angiogenic agent to be approved by the FDA for cancer therapy. His research also led to the development of ranibizumab, which has been FDA-approved for the treatment of multiple intraocular neovascular disorders. In January 2013, Dr. Ferrara joined the University of California, San Diego as a Distinguished Professor of Pathology, Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Ophthalmology and Senior Deputy Director for Basic Sciences of the Moores Cancer Center.
Dr. Ferrara has authored over 300 scientific publications. He is also the recipient of numerous awards including the Lefoulon-Delalande-Institut-de-France Prize, the Passano Award, the General Motors Cancer Research Award, the ASCO Science of Oncology Award, the Pezcoller Foundation-AACR International Award, the Lasker-deBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, the Dr. Paul Janssen Award, the Economist Innovation Award and the inaugural Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. Dr. Ferrara has been a member of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, since 2006.