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Herbert Boyer (1936 - )

Susan Wiegand

Herbert Boyer was born and raised in a corner of western Pennsylvania where railroads and mines were the destiny of most young men. How did Herbert end up instead on the cover of Time Magazine, surrounded by an artist's interpretation of the DNA molecule? His football coach, who also happened to be the science teacher at the small high school Herbert attended in Derry, Pennsylvania, might nod his head and say nothing, not particularly surprised that his student and varsity lineman went on to make a most impressive strategic and offensive play in the field of molecular biology and the industry of pharmaceuticals. Then again, maybe he's still thinking, "Perhaps Herbert should have been the quarterback. . . ."

After finishing high school, Boyer went on to attend the nearby St. Vincent's College in Latrobe, living at home while pursuing a pre-med curriculum. By junior year, it was apparent that he was not cut from the fabric of which doctors are made. In this brief flirtation with the medical profession, before finding himself drawn powerfully to the research bench, Boyer followed a career route not unlike that of many other pioneer molecular biologists.

Boyer received his B.S. in biology and chemistry from St. Vincent's in 1958 and was married to his wife, Grace, in 1959. Graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh, which was completed in 1963, was followed by three years of post-graduate work at Yale. When biochemistry, protein chemistry, and enzymology were not occupying his attention, he took part in the civil rights movement, which was gaining momentum across the country.

By 1966, Boyer was ready to head West, reporting to his assistant professorship at the University of California at San Francisco. By 1969, Escherichia coli, a common bacteria of the gut, had caught his attention - in particular, a couple of restriction enzymes of the E. coli bacterium with special and especially useful properties. Boyer observed that these enzymes have the capability of cutting DNA strands in a particular fashion, which left what has became known as "sticky ends" on the strands. These clipped ends made pasting together pieces of DNA a precise exercise.

This discovery in turn led to a rich and rewarding conversation in Hawaii with a Stanford scientist named Stanley Cohen. Cohen had been studying small ringlets of DNA, which are called plasmids and which float freely about in the cytoplasm of certain bacterial cells, replicating independently from the coding strand of DNA. Cohen had developed a method of removing these plasmids from the cell and then reinserting them in other cells. Combining this process with that of DNA splicing enabled Boyer and Cohen to recombine segments of DNA in desired configurations and insert the DNA in bacterial cells, which could then act as manufacturing plants for specific proteins. This breakthrough was the basis upon which the biotechnology industry was founded.

In 1975, a young man named Robert Swanson, who was employed by one of the big venture capital firms in Silicon Valley, approached Boyer with a vision for a new biotechnology industry. The ensuing dialogue between the two men opened up Boyer's eyes to the specific commercial potential for the process of using cells as factories for hormones and proteins to produce "biopharmaceuticals." In 1976, the two men incorporated Genentech, Inc. (for "genetic engineering technology") and set their sights on the synthesis of human insulin, a goal Genentech scientists achieved in 1978. After licensing the human insulin technology to Lilly, Genentech became the first biotechnology company to launch its own biopharmaceutical product in 1985, human growth hormone. Boyer remained vice-president of Genentech from its founding until 1990. At that time, Boyer traded in his VP cap for a place on the Board of Directors.

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