Mark W. J. Ferguson never dreamed of becoming Belfast's answer to Crocodile Dundee when he was a dentistry student in Northern Ireland in the late 1970s. But an interest in cleft palates led him to the swamps of Louisiana, Zimbabwe, and Australia to track and study alligators and crocodiles, whose palates develop in the same way as humans. Armed only with a six-foot stick, Ferguson, 49, once spent two days walking out of an Australian swamp after his helicopter motor failed. "I came out exhausted and dehydrated, but not bitten," he recalls.
Ferguson's risky reptile research led him to a major, although accidental, discovery. While a professor of biology at Manchester University in the 1980s, Ferguson often operated on alligator embryos while in the womb to further his research into the causes of cleft palates. To his surprise, the embryos later were born scar-free. Ferguson concluded that a naturally occurring protein known as transforming growth factor beta 3, which is found in higher concentrations in embryos than adults, was promoting the healing.
That marked the start of a 20-year quest to develop the world's first prescription drug to prevent and reduce scarring in humans. To capitalize on his discovery, Ferguson teamed up with fellow Manchester University researcher Sharon O'Kane in 2000 to set up a biotech company called Renovo Ltd. (Their partnership has also produced three daughters.)
Ferguson has proven just as adept at corralling investors as crocodiles. Since its inception, Renovo, based in Manchester, England, has drummed up $59 million from venture-capital firms. What has the money men lining up is a potential blockbuster called Juvista. The anti-scarring treatment is about to enter final-stage clinical trials and, if successful, could hit the U.S. market within four years. An initial public offering of Renovo's shares on the London Stock Exchange later this month aims to raise $124 million, making it the biggest biotech IPO in Europe in several years.
All the buzz is not surprising, considering the massive potential for Juvista. Scarring of the skin afflicts an estimated 42 million patients in the U.S. -- a larger number than those suffering from diabetes or asthma. The Mattson Jack Group, an American pharmaceutical consultancy, estimates that the commercial market for the prevention and reduction of skin scarring alone is worth $4 billion a year. "People have nipped at the edges of wound healing, but no one has really found the right product for it. We think we have," says Jerry Karabelas, the former head of the U.S. drug business of Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis (NVS) and a partner at Princeton (N.J.)-based Care Capital LLC, one of Renovo's investors.
The main treatments for scarring currently range from cheap and painless, such as over-the-counter creams, to excruciating and costly, such as skin grafts. Juvista, a synthetic version of the healing protein, is administered by injection at the edge of a wound, and two doses suffice. Although Renovo has yet to set a price, the company expects Juvista will cost less than a shot of Botox. In clinical trials of the drug, which is formulated for cosmetic surgery, more than 70% of patients have reported a significant reduction in scarring. That comes as little surprise to Ferguson, who has used himself as a guinea pig, inflicting cuts to his arms and treating himself with the drug. "I wouldn't ask anyone to volunteer for something I wouldn't do myself," he says.
Renovo has three other anti-scarring drugs in advanced clinical trials and an additional 13 in the pipeline. Some of them target internal scarring to blood vessels, the eyes, and tendons. "If there is a site in the body with potential for scarring, we're interested in it as a potential market for our drugs," says Ferguson. "I always tell people: 'Scars are us."' Looks like all the pain Ferguson has suffered in the name of science could pay off big.
By Kerry Capell in London