1996 Lemelson-MIT Prize Winners
Photo courtesy of Herbert Boyer
Photo courtesy of Stanford University
Over hot pastrami and corned beef sandwiches, Herbert Boyer and
Stanley Cohen opened the door to genetic engineering and laid the
foundations for gene therapy and the biotechnology industry. For
these outstanding achievements, the two collaborators received the
$500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize in 1996.
Boyer and Cohen met in 1972, while presenting papers in Hawaii
at a conference on bacterial plasmids. A Stanford University professor,
Cohen had been working on ways to isolate specific genes in antibiotic
carrying plasmids and clone them individually through introducing
them to E. coli bacteria. Boyer, hailing from the University of
California, San Francisco, had discovered a restriction enzyme that
cut DNA strands at specific DNA sequences, producing "cohesive
ends" that could stick to other pieces of DNA.
Following the conference, the two colleagues met at a local deli
to discuss using plasmids as a vector for cloning individual DNA
segments. Boyer and Cohen agreed to collaborate, and in a matter
of months succeeded in splicing a piece of foreign DNA into a plasmid
carrier, which then inserted genetic information into a bacterium.
When the bacterium reproduced, it copied the foreign DNA into its
offspring, acting as a natural factory producing biological substances.
By genetically engineering cells to produce human substances, Boyer
and Cohen invented a quick and easy way to make chemicals like HGH
(human growth hormone), synthetic insulin, factor VIII for hemophilia,
somatostatin for acromegaly and clot-dissolving agent tissue plasmogen
Boyer and Cohen have received three patents, from which over 350
licenses have been granted—generating approximately $27 million
in royalties. Despite their achievements, Cohen modestly declares,
"Boyer and I didn't set out to invent genetic engineering.
Our invention came from efforts to understand basic biological phenomena
and the realization that our findings had important practical applications."
Boyer, from western Pennsylvania, received his B.S. in biology
and chemistry from St. Vincent's (1958) and his M.S. and Ph.D. in
bacteriology from the University of Pittsburgh (1963), followed
by post-graduate work at Yale. He is currently a director at the
leading biotech company Genentech, which he co-founded in 1976.
Cohen, a native of Perth Amboy, NJ, received his B.A. in biological
sciences from Rutgers University and his M.D. from the University
of Pennsylvania. Cohen currently continues research in genetics
at Stanford. Both Boyer and Cohen have received the National Medal
of Science and the National Medal of Technology, and are members
of the National Academy of Sciences.