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The Birth of Biotech

Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen started a revolution.

In the fall of 1972, there was no such thing as genetic engineering. A late-night snack and a newspaper clipping changed all that-and spawned a new industry.

In the early 1970s, Herbert Boyer’s lab at the University of California, San Francisco, isolated an enzyme that cut DNA at specific locations. At the same time, Stanley Cohen’s Stanford lab was working out methods for introducing small circular pieces of DNA called “plasmids” into bacteria, which act as living Xerox machines, copying genes each time the microbes divide. At a November 1972 conference in Hawaii, both researchers presented their work-and realized that if they combined their techniques they would have a remarkable tool. The pair sealed the deal at a local deli and within months their labs had jointly proved the possibility of gene “cloning”: splicing a gene of interest-say, one that encodes a human hormone-into a microorganism or other cell. The technique is at the heart of DNA sequencing, genetic engineering and, indeed, biotechnology.

Stanford seized on the potential of the work, and did something that was quite unusual at the time: They patented the technique. But that might not have happened if it weren’t for a 1974 New York Times story on Boyer and Cohen’s accomplishment by TR board member Victor K. McElheny, then the Times’ technology writer. Clipped by Stanford’s news director, the story landed on the desk of the school’s director of technology transfer, Niels Reimers. Reimers quickly called Cohen; patents must be filed within a year of the first public disclosure of an invention, and Boyer and Cohen had published their results in 1973. By the time all of the researchers and institutions involved agreed on a strategy, Reimers had only a week to file.

In 1980, Boyer and Cohen received the first of three patents. All told, the patents generated over $250 million in royalties before expiring in 1997. Meanwhile, Boyer did one more critical thing for the burgeoning biotech industry: In 1976, with venture capitalist Robert Swanson, he founded the now-giant Genentech.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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