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Biotechnologist Jennie P. Mather set out in 1999 to challenge conventional thinking when it comes to advanced pharmaceutical development. With nearly three decades of experience in cell biology research behind her, she embarked on her own path to launch a company to produce novel therapeutics targeted toward specific diseases, using a process that closely analyzes the surface of a disease cell to develop antibodies to disable proteins on those cells’ surface that are necessary for the disease to grow. She hopes that drugs created using this process will not only have a relatively fast development time but will become effective treatments for a variety of cancers, such as breast, prostate, lung, colon, pancreatic and ovarian forms of that deadly disease.
Born in 1949, Mather earned a doctoral degree in biology at the University of California, San Diego, in 1975. She worked as an Assistant Professor at New York’s The Rockefeller University for several years before she joined biotech behemoth Genentech as the firm’s first female staff scientist.
There she became involved in a wide variety of research endeavors, including leading or participating in the project teams that produced such drugs as Herceptin®, used to treat metastatic breast cancer; Activase®, a drug used to treat heart attack, acute ischemic stroke, and acute massive pulmonary embolism; and Pulmozyme®, an inhalation treatment for patients with cystic fibrosis. In addition, Mather contributed to the development of Genentech’s cell culture biomanufacturing processes and helped to secure several key patents for the company.
South San Francisco-based Genentech helped to establish the biotech industry with groundbreaking work that centers on deconstructing the genome of a disease cell in its entirety, and then developing drugs to combat it. This process is effective but can take a number of years to complete, as a typical disease is made up of 500 to 1,000 genes.
Mather became intrigued with the idea of using the proteins on the surface of a disease cell as targets for the antibodies she was developing. Antibodies are proteins produced by the body's immune system in response to a foreign substance. They are what our bodies use to fight off infection.
Mather noted that natural antibodies never enter diseased cells, rather they work on a disease cell’s exterior. She postulated that drugs could and should work the same way. She also thought that by looking at simply the surface proteins of a disease cell she might be able to cut drug development time down to less than one year. In October of 1998, she began seeking funding to launch her own company with this goal in mind.
In less than two months Mather was able to raise more than $1 million to start Raven Biotechnologies, Inc., in South San Francisco, where she serves as founder, President, and Chief Scientific Officer. Since she began she has raised more than $115 million in venture capital.
As Raven got off the ground, Mather, who holds some 30 patents, realized she needed to find a way to keep human cells alive inside a lab dish. She patented a process that achieves this and set to work on getting one of her drugs into testing phase. As of this 2008 writing, Raven has initiated phase 2 studies for RAV12, its first drug candidate, and has more than a dozen other cancer drug candidates under evaluation.