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Controlled drug delivery systems

Alejandro Alejandro Zaffaroni has based an impressive career as an inventor and entrepreneur on controlled-release drug delivery, a now common method of treatment that he was one of the first to support.

Zaffaroni was born in 1922 in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. He received his BSc degree in a pre-med program at the University of Montevideo, then came to the US to study Biochemistry (specifically, Endocrinology) at the University of Rochester in New York. Zaffaroni received a PhD there in 1951, after writing a dissertation describing a new method for the quantitative analysis of steroids in natural materials --- a method he would use later as a basis for synthesizing cortisone for therapeutical uses. Later that year, he joined Syntex Corporation of Mexico City, Mexico, then a small chemical company specializing in the manufacture of synthetic steroids.

Zaffaroni quickly climbed Syntex' corporate ladder, thanks to both his scientific and entrepreneurial skills. In time, as President of Syntex Laboratories, Zaffaroni oversaw the company's expansion into pharmaceuticals and the transfer of its labs to Palo Alto, California. Zaffaroni was determined to invest in, and invent, alternative means of drug delivery. His graduate work in endocrinology had taught him that the body was able to release vital hormones into the body at a strictly regular rate; Zaffaroni wanted to create drugs that could mimic this timed-release process. So he jumped at the chance, while at Syntex in Palo Alto, to work with Carl Djerassi in developing the oral contraceptive.

By 1968, Syntex was a major international manufacturer of pharmaceuticals. But Zaffaroni left Syntex that year to found his own drug delivery company, ALZA, Inc. In a thirty-year career at ALZA, Zaffaroni performed the same double duties of research and management. On the one hand, he averaged about a patent a year, for various types of oral osmotic and transdermal controlled-release drug delivery. On the other hand, he supervised the assembly of a team of expert researchers in drug development. In both cases, Zaffaroni faced an uphill climb, because the medical and pharmaceutical industries were still hesitant, through the 1970s and into the '80s, to accept controlled drug delivery.

Today, controlled delivery is widely recognized as the most safe, efficient, and cost-effective means of many types of treatment; and ALZA is one of the world's leading drug delivery companies, with over $400M revenues and over 1,400 employees worldwide. Successful ALZA products include Procardia®, the best-selling cardiovascular medicine in the US in the early 1990s, and the proprietary technology underlying NicoDerm® CQ, for smoking cessation, and Transderm Scop®, for prevention of motion sickness.

Outside of his work at ALZA, Zaffaroni has founded over a half dozen other biotech companies, most notably DNAX Ltd. (1980), a developer of genetic engineering and immunobiology technologies, and Affymetrix (1991), whose most recent innovation is the GeneChip® system for computer-aided analysis of genetic information. Zaffaron also continues to invent, and has earned over two dozen patents.

In late 1997, Zaffaroni retired from his positions with ALZA and Affymetrix, in order to devote more time to the non-profit Zaffaroni Foundation, which he founded in 1963 for research in the role of education, nutrition and genetics in the development of depression and addictive disorders. Zaffaroni makes clear in conversation his belief that the true solution of most medical, psychological, and even social problems is their prevention, through information, rather than their treatment after the fact.

Alejandro Zaffaroni still manages at least three active biotech ventures, and remains a living legend within the biotech industry of northern California, and indeed throughout the world. In 1995, he finally gained the attention of the American public, when he was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President Clinton.

[Jan. 1999]

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