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Boyer & Cohen

Cloning of Genetically Engineered Molecules

Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen combined their efforts in biotechnology to invent a method of cloning genetically engineered molecules in foreign cells. By this discovery and its applications Boyer and Cohen initiated what is now the multibillion-dollar biotechnology industry.

Their collaboration began at a conference in Hawaii in 1972, when Boyer was a biochemist and genetic engineer at the University of California at San Francisco, and Cohen was an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University. The conference's topic was bacterial plasmids---circular segments of DNA that endow the cells carrying them with antibiotic resistance and other medical benefits.

Boyer's lab had recently isolated an enzyme that could be used to cut strings of DNA into precise and "cohesive" segments: that is, the segments would carry the code for a pre-determined protein and could also be attached to other strands of DNA. Cohen had developed a method to introduce antibiotic-carrying plasmids into certain bacteria, as well as a method of isolating and cloning genes carried by the plasmids.

Boyer and Cohen decided to pool their resources: Boyer's enzyme would allow Cohen to introduce specific DNA segments to plasmids, and use those plasmids as a vehicle for cloning precise, previously targeted strands of DNA. Within four months, the joint effort of Boyer's and Cohen's labs had succeeded in cloning predetermined patterns of DNA.

After further refinements, three patents, and marketing and licensing arrangements, Boyer and Cohen had given birth to a huge, international industry. Among the dozens of medical products that their work has made possible are synthetic insulin for those with diabetes, a clot-dissolving agent for heart-attack victims, and a growth hormone for underdeveloped children. These and other lifesaving substances are now produced world-wide by Boyer's and Cohen's cloning methodology.

For their inventions, entrepreneurship, and the spirit of teamwork which allowed them their success, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen were awarded the 1996 Lemelson-MIT Prize for Invention and Innovation.

[April 1997]

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