The gene factor

Alum’s biotech company uses virus to deliver therapy for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

By: Andrea Billups
Jeff Ostrove, PhD '80. Photo by Carol Sonstein

Jeff Ostrove, PhD ’80. Photo by Carol Sonstein

More than 30 years ago, UF College of Medicine graduate student Jeff Ostrove spent 80 hours a week happily laboring in a Gainesville molecular biology lab studying AAV.

The acronym stands for adeno-associated virus, a benign, polka-dot-looking virus that does not cause disease in those it infects — humans and primates — but carries a great quality for scientists: It can incorporate its genome into a host cell, making it a great delivery mode for gene therapy.

Today, Ostrove (PhD ’80) and his old Gator lab pal AAV have come full circle. Scientists at Ostrove’s thriving San Diego, Calif., biotech company Ceregene are using it as a delivery tool in a U.S.-based multicenter clinical trial testing new gene therapies that may one day help improve the lives of those with neurodegenerative brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. An estimated 5.4 million people in the United States currently have Alzheimer’s diagnoses along with more than 1 million who are suffering from Parkinson’s — numbers Ostrove dubs “staggering.”

“It really touches everyone’s lives,” says Ostrove, a New York native who started his company Ceregene in 2001 from his home office.

Nearly a decade and more than $80 million in venture capital later, the biotech firm employs about 20 researchers whose products are being tested in two phase 2 clinical trials at 11 major medical centers each around the nation.

Ceregene is studying what are called nervous system growth factors or neurotrophic factors, which function like a fertilizer for nerves. The factors are a natural protein found first in the developing fetus and expressed across an individual’s lifespan. The proteins’ normal role is to keep certain populations of nerves or neurons functioning normally.

“What Ceregene has done is coupled the power of these neurotrophic factors with the precise delivery technology of gene therapy, which now allows us to deliver a gene for a neurotrophic factor exactly to the region of the brain that is degenerating in Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease,” Ostrove explains. “The beauty of these growth factor approaches … is they have the potential to keep the degenerating or dying neurons alive and functioning normally.

“Instead of cells just dying, we believe we’ll have both symptomatic improvement as well as slowing down of the neuro-degeneration.”

His company, located in the La Jolla-area of San Diego, has received millions in biotech research funding from such prestigious national groups as the Michael J. Fox Foundation, along with capital investment partners.

Ostrove, who did postdoctoral work at The Johns Hopkins University College of Medicine, served on the faculty of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, part of the National Institutes of Health, before leaving to work at a private biotech company in Maryland where he learned about product development and manufacturing of biopharmaceuticals. After stints at a company in Vancouver, British Columbia, he moved to San Diego, where he started Ceregene — an idea hatched initially from work performed at the University of California, San Diego.

“I was working on other people’s projects, and I wanted to work on my own — on things that would have more of a direct impact on people’s lives,” said Ostrove, a father of two grown children.

“I always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” he said of his drive to use his research training in his own firm.

Now, coming up on Ceregene’s 10th anniversary in April, his productive company has developed four different products, two of which remain in clinical development.

While he jokes that “they don’t let me in the lab anymore,” his focus as Ceregene CEO and president is on raising money, representing his company around the world and ensuring that his biotech research products have integrity and quality behind them.

“The idea of really having such an important impact on human health on such a global scale is what drives not only me every day, but a lot of the employees at Ceregene and people we work with at various medical schools who are testing our products,” he says with great pride.

Ostrove praises his experience at UF. “It was a very exciting time,” he recalls, dubbing his education in Gator country “world-class.”

His early research work there with a talented group of professors and mentors gave him a solid foundation and passion for science that he says remains today. Their collegial spirit also taught him to work hard and play hard, a philosophy he still embraces.

And he fondly remembers scalloping with friends in Steinhatchee and deep-sea fishing near Cape Canaveral.

He learned to scuba dive in Gainesville in 1977 at Alan’s Aquatics, a fun skill he retains. Ostrove also remains true to Gator athletics, noting that he joins Gator club alumni at a San Diego sports bar to watch ballgames a few times a year.

Ostrove serves on the board of directors of BIO, the biotech trade organization in the United States, and is a frequent lecturer around the nation, including Stanford business school. While keeping a research company growing is focused work, knowing he has impact on such debilitating global diseases is a potent motivator in moving forward, he says. So many people and families are looking to science and genetic research like his for hope.

“There are very few days when I don’t love getting up and going to work.”