Jacobson, among others, speculated that nitrogen mustard in minute doses might prove useful in fighting leukemia and lymphoma, which are characterized by a proliferation of the mutant white blood cells. Alfred Gilman and Louis Goodman, who would later write a famous textbook on clinical pharmacology, conducted similar experiments at Yale University. These results were the first stirrings of cancer chemotherapy and generated tremendous excitement throughout the medical community.
As early as scientists had speculated there must be something in the blood that signaled bone marrow to replace red blood cells, which wore out while ferrying oxygen around the body. Scientists had already given the molecular trigger a name—erythropoietin, after erythropoiesis, the medical term for red blood cell formation. But no one had ever found Epo, much less isolated it for study.
In , Jacobson challenged Goldwasser, new to academic life, to find the elusive protein. If the molecule could be purified in large quantities—perhaps from animals, as had been done with insulin—it might prove useful in treating people suffering from radiation sickness.
I had all the money and space I needed. I thought it would take about three months. The average person produces two to three million red blood cells a second—more than a thousand pounds of blood over the course of a lifetime. Moreover, the blood contains more than two hundred proteins, and Epo puts in only a brief appearance.
Looking for Epo in the blood was like looking for dimes on a long stretch of sandy beach. Goldwasser spent the first several years of his search trying to figure out what part of the body produced Epo. His research team carefully removed different organs from laboratory rats until they determined that the absence of kidneys triggered anemia. They next made animals anemic, under the assumption that their kidneys would overproduce Epo in an attempt to end the red blood cell deficiency.
This overexpression, they speculated, would leave recoverable traces of Epo in the blood. They injected soon-to-be-slaughtered sheep with a chemical that destroyed their red blood cells and made them anemic. They waited a day before capturing their blood serum, assuming the sheep kidneys would overexpress Epo into the blood to correct the imbalance.
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Back in the lab, they distilled the blood serum into fractions they hoped were relatively pure, and then injected each one into anemic rats to see if any improved their red blood cell count. From time to time, there were tantalizing hints of activity from the trace amounts of Epo in one of the fractions. But he could never isolate it, much less get enough to test in humans. The sheep experiments dragged on for fifteen years. Goldwasser received tenure and raised a family.
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He and his young son used to spend holidays and weekends in his University of Chicago labs injecting laboratory rats and testing their blood, but his son, frustrated by the glacial pace of scientific progress, eventually left for college to study German literature. Rival investigators in Chile and at the California Institute of Technology published papers showing that excess Epo showed up in urine, not blood.
The sheep had led Goldwasser down a blind alley. The Kumamoto University researcher had read the handful of papers that Goldwasser had generated during his long, fruitless hunt for Epo. Miyake explained that a number of patients near his university on the southern island of Kyushu suffered from aplastic anemia. The industrious Japanese scholar eventually collected 2, liters from his patients. The grant came through in the fall of Goldwasser later learned this was a furoshiki, the ritual covering for gifts given to special friends and colleagues.
Inside was the dried urine. Goldwasser, along with his chief assistant, Charles Kung, and Miyake, immediately set about the painstaking process of chemically searching for Epo. They subjected the urine to a seven-step purification procedure that had been perfected over years of sheep experiments. There was only a single dark-stained band.
All the previous fractions had many bands. The thought was bingo!
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Then we put it in [the anemic] rats, and it worked like a charm with the highest potency we had ever seen. The results of that experiment were published in the August Journal of Biological Chemistry. In the mids Goldwasser had tried to attract the interest of scientists at Parke-Davis, a medium-sized drug company based in Michigan.
Some initial efforts had shown promise. But the experiment could not be repeated, and Parke-Davis lost interest in the program. They rejected his repeated entreaties. Desperate to interest someone in becoming his partner, Goldwasser launched a human clinical trial. He applied to the Food and Drug Administration FDA for permission to administer a portion of his tiny stash of Epo to three dialysis patients at the University of Chicago hospital.
The disclosure was required by the Department of Energy and NIH, which had funded his research over the years. In the late s, the government was increasingly concerned about the stagnant U. Patent disclosure was supposed to facilitate the process. Years later, as he prepared to answer a subpoena in the endless patent litigation between Amgen and other firms that wanted to manufacture artificial Epo, he uncovered the oversight. There were dozens of them. I found this letter that had been sent to the agency funding us, asking them to file a patent. I forgot all about it.
One patient showed a small increase in red blood cell count and a major increase in the formation of red blood cell precursors. But the dose was too small, and continuing the experiment would have dissipated his entire Epo supply. Luckily, by there were a host of new players ready to listen to his story. In the late s and early s, an entrepreneurial revolution swept through the once staid world of academic medical research.
A quick side tour reveals the origin of this new industry: The core technologies of biotechnology were themselves products of university-based scientists who used public funding in the United States and in England to foment a revolution. Biotechnology can trace its roots to , when James Watson and Francis Crick, building on years of discoveries and the unheralded work of X-ray diffraction expert Rosalind Franklin, unraveled the doublehelix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid DNA , which makes up the genetic code for all forms of life. It used just two complimentary pairs of molecules called base nucleotides.
The order of these base pairs along strands of DNA expressed all the genetic information that makes up life on this planet.
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The code also provided a language for generating new combinations, thus explaining evolution. If life was a computer program, why not use the information to recreate the building blocks of life, or even reprogram them? The same year, Frederick Sanger of Cambridge University in England determined that all proteins, the workhorses of life, were made up of strings of the twenty-two different amino acids that were expressed by the genetic codes contained on DNA.
He also figured out a chemical process for mapping the sequence of amino acids, and then did it for insulin. Scientists identified chemical scalpels, known as restriction enzymes, to snip DNA and proteins into small pieces. They developed chemicals for reconstructing proteins one amino acid at a time to determine their sequence.
Their breakthrough—actually the last step in a long string of academic science advances—led directly to the creation of the biotechnology industry. Recombinant DNA engineering enabled scientists to use biological and chemical processes to manufacture large quantities of proteins by splicing the genetic fragments that expressed those proteins onto the DNA of fast-growing bacteria or mammalian ovary cells. He begged the two scientists to apply for a patent on their invention, which they did after a short but heated debate.
Cohen initially opposed patenting.
In those days his attitude was common among academic scientists, whose incentives had not yet been influenced by the stock market fever of the s and s. Most scientists were still more interested in winning intellectual competitions and disseminating knowledge broadly than in commercializing their work.
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Cohen was especially leery of patenting a scientific tool like recombinant engineering since it might inhibit further research. He relented after Reimers argued that licensing recombinant DNA technology to all comers would be the fastest way to deploy it broadly. Swanson, who earned chemistry and business degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was eager to plunge into the new world of biotechnology after reading about the recombinant engineering breakthrough in the newspapers. He immediately called Boyer and asked if he was interested in starting a company.
They met in a San Francisco bar and by January had created the business plan for a firm called Genetic Engineering Technology, or Genentech, which became the technological leader of the new field.
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Two other events in transformed the environment for the nascent biotechnology industry. The new law reflected the bipartisan concern that the U. The bill encouraged federally funded researchers and their university sponsors to license their patented discoveries to industry by giving them clear title to the patents. The debate behind the new law was focused on speeding innovation from the lab to the computer, auto, and steel industries.
But the major beneficiaries of the bill turned out to be researchers on the frontiers of medical science. The second major event of that year took place on Wall Street. It was the largest IPO in the history of the American stock market to that time.