1936, Derry, PA
Until Boyer and Cohen's discovery, East coast chemical companies were responsible for engineering drugs. Located on the West coast, far from the scientific establishment, Boyer and Cohen were the first to figure out that drugs could be created through biology.
Photos: (left) Steve Northup; (right) Huntington Potter
A small-town Pennsylvania boy grew up to help create the biotech industry, leading to breakthrough treatments for diseases.
Inspired by the Double Helix
The $430 billion dollar biotechnology industry is relatively new, and came about largely due to the efforts of molecular geneticist Herbert Boyer; his collaborator, Stanford professor Stanley Cohen; and venture capitalist Robert Swanson. Boyer was born in 1936 and grew up in Derry, Pennsylvania. In 1953, near the end of his high school days, Boyer found two heroes: Francis Crick and James Watson, the scientists who had just discovered DNA's double helix structure.
Cutting and Cloning
Boyer arrived in San Francisco in 1966 -- at the height of its Sixties counterculture. An active civil rights and anti-war protester, Boyer was now a biologist and new assistant professor at the University of California. In late-night lab sessions, he found a way to cut certain strings of DNA into "cohesive" segments, with the aid of an isolated enzyme. Boyer was able to cut the code for a specific protein and attach it to other DNA. At a conference in 1972, Boyer came into contact with Cohen's work, isolating and cloning genes in bacterial plasmids, and using antibiotic-carrying plasmids to treat certain bacteria. Combining their labs' efforts, the two men developed a means of using plasmids to clone predetermined segments of DNA. Their research held promise for creating genetically engineered drugs in the lab.
In January 1976, 28-year-old venture capitalist Robert Swanson entered the picture. A successful cold-call at Boyer's lab led to a couple of beers -- and an agreement to start a pharmaceutical company. Putting down $500 apiece, they capitalized a new business, Genentech, to seek practical uses for Boyer and Cohen's engineered proteins. Swanson raised money for staff and labs, and in a two-year, round-the-clock effort, Genentech staff successfully created their first product: chemically synthesized genes for human insulin.
In 1980, Genentech sold stock in an initial public offering, raising a spectacular $38.5 million and making its founders multi-millionaires. Wall Street was thrilled -- and so were the patients who used Genentech's insulin. In 1985, the company released a second drug made with recombinant DNA, human growth hormone. Boyer and Cohen's scientific research had a profound impact. Today, 1,500 American biotechnology companies manufacture drugs that help hundreds of thousands of patients, including insulin for the treatment of diabetes; growth hormones; cancer treatments; an agent to dissolve blood clots in victims of heart attacks, and more.