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DNA Trailblazers Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen
Receive Half-Million Dollars for Invention and Innovation

New York, NY, April 11, 1996 — Genetic engineers Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen have been named co-recipients of the 1996 Lemelson-MIT Prize of $500,000 by the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program, administered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Together, Boyer and Cohen provided the cornerstone for modern biological and medical science, by inventing a method of cloning genetically engineered molecules in foreign cells. Their discovery paved the way for the mass production of hormones and other chemicals once only made by the human body, and established the multibillion dollar biotechnology industry.

The announcement was made today at the New York Academy of Sciences in New York City by Dr. Lester C. Thurow, internationally-renowned economist of MIT's Sloan School of Management and chairman of the Lemelson-MIT Prize Board, which oversees the selection process. Boyer and Cohen will be honored at a ceremony this evening at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (Washington, DC) for their contributions to American invention and innovation.

Independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy, established the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program at MIT in 1994 to recognize the nation's most talented inventors and to promote positive role models for American youngsters. The Program's $500,000 Prize celebrates excellence in creativity, invention and innovation. "Boyer and Cohen's ingenuity has revolutionized the way all of us live our lives," said Charles M. Vest, president of MIT. "Their collaborative effort a bringing together of the talents and findings of two laboratories in the pursuit of a third solution — is the stuff of true innovation."

Thurow calls Boyer and Cohen "The fathers of the biotechnology industry. Their contributions to science and society have not only given us the tools to forge our own future, but also provided thousands of jobs for Americans." Commenting on his half-million dollar Prize, Boyer remarks "Cohen and I were looking to solve a puzzle. Our innate curiosities and drive to take our research one step farther made bringing our technologies together seem natural; I'm glad that quest to 'find a better way' is being recognized with the Lemelson-MIT Prize, and I hope it inspires others to do the same."

Looking back on their discovery, Cohen notes, "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."

Their collaboration began in November of 1972, in Hawaii, where Boyer and Cohen were both presenting papers at a United States-Japan joint meeting on bacterial plasmids — circular DNA segments that confer antibiotic resistance to an ever-growing number of bacterial species. Plasmids can also carry the genes for a number of other properties in addition to antibiotic resistance, properties that confer a biological advantage to cells containing the plasmid.

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Cohen, then an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University, wanted to understand which genes were present on plasmids, and how they functioned. His research focused on a method for introducing antibiotic-carrying plasmid DNA into E. coli bacteria, which transformed the bacteria into antibiotic-resistant strains. Soon he was able to isolate specific genes on the plasmids, and clone them individually.

Meanwhile Boyer, a biochemist and genetic engineer at the University of California at San Francisco, was trying to understand how cells were able to pick out, from an entire strand of DNA, one specific DNA sequence — when a cell needs to make a specific protein, how does it choose the one DNA sequence that codes for the right protein? A graduate student in his lab found a new kind of enzyme that seemed to cleave the DNA at just the right place. This enzyme, called a restriction enzyme, cut the strand only where it found a particular DNA sequence. At the 1972 meeting in Hawaii, Boyer described to the crowd of scientists how restriction enzymes yielded DNA segments with "cohesive ends" — ends that could stick to other pieces of DNA.

Cohen and Boyer both realized that Boyer's enzyme could provide Cohen with a valuable tool, one that would cut Cohen's plasmid DNA into specific, rather than random, segments, then bind those segments to new plasmids. "In other words," remembers Cohen, "it might be possible to use the plasmid as a vector or vehicle for cloning individual DNA segments."

Over a late-night snack at a local deli, Boyer and Cohen discussed a possible collaboration. Within four months, the two labs were not only working together, but demonstrated jointly the feasibility of DNA cloning. Soon, Boyer, Cohen and their respective institutions were granted three separate patents on basic cloning methodology. By the end of the 1995 fiscal year, 350 licenses of the patent had been granted, bringing in gross royalties of approximately $27 million split equally between Stanford and the University of California.

Today, people all around the world enjoy the benefits of Boyer and Cohen's "cellular factories": heart-attack victims are receiving injections of a clot-dissolving agent, people with diabetes receive injections of insulin and children with growth difficulties are being treated with human-growth hormone, all produced by genetically engineered bacteria.

"America's greatest natural resource remains American ingenuity," says Lemelson. "I can think of few who personify this truism better than Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen, who prove that new technologies frequently lead to more jobs and higher living standards."

Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994 by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy. The Program celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards including the world's largest for invention, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The Program encourages young Americans to pursue careers in the fields of science, engineering, technology and entrepreneurship. The Lemelson-MIT Program is funded by the Lemelson Foundation, which supports other invention initiatives at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Hampshire College, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and the University of Nevada, Reno.

Read more about Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen.

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