Phillip A. Sharp has enjoyed a front-row seat for the revolution known as biotechnology. As a young professor of biology at MIT in 1977, he checked out-at the request of several venture capitalists-an obscure California company called Genentech, which had the preposterous notion of using recombinant DNA to create pharmaceuticals. Later that year, when Genentech announced it had made a human protein from a synthetic gene, the world learned publicly what Sharp had understood privately: Genetic engineering technology would transform medicine.
In the spring of 1978, Sharp had the chance to put theory into practice. Those same venture capitalists recruited him and other prominent biologists from the United States and Europe to form the core of a new startup. The result, Cambridge, Mass.-based Biogen, remains one of the pioneering biotechnology firms; today, Sharp serves on the company’s board of directors and chairs its scientific advisory board, assessing potential research initiatives and overseeing the journey of drugs from lab bench to market.
Sharp’s own journey in science has taken him far from the Kentucky tobacco farm where he was born on D-Day in 1944. In 1974, after postgraduate stints at Caltech and Cold Spring Harbor, he came to MIT. In 1993, Sharp shared the Nobel Prize with Richard Roberts for research showing that genes are not arrayed as continuous stretches of DNA, but rather are spliced together during cellular processing.
Stephen Hall first interviewed Sharp 15 years ago while researching his book on the birth of biotechnology, Invisible Frontiers. In June, journalist and scientist sat down in Sharp’s office at MIT’s Center for Cancer Research. Kentucky still audible in his soft-spoken words, Sharp offered a down-to-earth, insightful perspective on the shape of the biotech industry, the difficulty of making potentially remarkable new therapies work-and the place of hope in the world.