Steven Ferrara dedicates his working life to developing new ways of treating cancer. He is a research scientist in the Center for the Development of Therapeutics at the renowned Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. His decision to become a scientist was personal, “When I was very young, my mom had cancer. There was no standard of care for her type of cancer; however she was lucky as surgery and subsequent radiotherapy were enough to cure her. An experience like that really opens your eyes as to how close cancer can hit people. From a young age I was interested in science and trying to help people get over their disease. So, I tailored my career to this.”
As part of his work at the Broad Institute, Steven spent six months at Bayer’s Pharmaceuticals headquarters in Berlin, Germany. Bayer and the Broad Institute partnered to develop a clinical candidate that blocks the enzyme dihydroorotate dehydrogenase (DHODH), which is involved in the production of DNA building blocks that cells need for cell division. By inhibiting this enzyme, cancerous cells do not receive enough DNA building blocks to continue dividing and spreading in the body.
We caught up with Steven to hear more about his work on the project and the collaboration with Bayer:
Can you tell us about your role in the project on the DHODH inhibitor?
My role in the DHODH project was lead chemist in Boston. The Broad Institute, along with scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital, identified a new mechanism of action for patients with acute myeloid leukemia, and Bayer had a set of compounds from a previous project that were known DHODH inhibitors. Bayer noticed some key liabilities from previous projects that had stopped these molecules from becoming oral drugs. My initial involvement was to carry out some investigative synthetic chemistry to develop a molecule that was suitable for use in animal studies. At this point, Bayer got involved and I moved to Berlin to work with the lead optimization team. We were given six months to fully optimize the molecule into a drug-like substance.