WhatIsBiotechnology is a content-led community that brings together the stories about the sciences, people and places that have enabled biotechnology to transform medicine and the world we live in today

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Women in biotechnology

We are pleased to publish some reflections from women about what they see as the most important change for women in the life sciences and healthcare sector in recent years. Click here to see their comments and contribute your own reflections. This is part of an ongoing public engagement project to champion the contributions of women in the biomedical sciences. Click here to find out more about this project. Find out about some of the hidden women at the cutting edge of the science by visiting our profiles of some of the women who have helped shape biotechnology.

This day in biotechnology

The following events took place on this day (17th March) in years past:

1881-03-17T00:00:00+0000University of Zurich

Walter R Hess was born in Frauenfeld, Switzerland (1881)

Hess was a physiologist who identified parts of the brain that control internal organs. He used brain stimulation techniques using electrodes to map regions of the brain associated with specific physiological responses. He also found it possible to induce excitement and apathy by stimulating different parts of the hypothalamus. Sciences: Neuroscience.

1946-03-17T00:00:00+0000Munich, Germany

Georges Kohler was born in Munich, Germany (1946)

Together with Cesar Milstein, Kohler developed the first unlimited supply of long-lasting monoclonal antibodies. Their technique now underpins the development and application of many diagnostics and therapeutics. Kohler and Milstein devised the method as part of their search for a tool to investigate how the immune system can make so many different kinds antibodies, each able to bind to a highly specific receptor on foreign substances that invade the body. Profiles: Kohler. Sciences: Antibodies, Monoclonal antibodies, Immunology.


Irène Joliot-Curie died (1956)

Building on the work of her parents, Marie and Pierre Curie, Irène Joliot-Curie managed to produce radioactive nitrogen from boron, radioactive isotopes of phosphorus from aluminium, and silicon from magnesium. The facilitated the application of radioactive materials for use in medicine. In 1935 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935 for her work on radioactive isotopes which today form the basis of much biomedical research and cancer treatment today.

2016-03-17T00:00:00+0000Columbia University

Scientists announce the first generation of an embryonic stem cell that carries a single copy of the human genome rather than the usual two (2016)

The cells proved capable of differentiating into many cell types, such as nerve, heart, and pancreatic cells, while retaining a single set of chromosomes. It is hoped the cells could help reduce the compexity of identifying genetic abnormalities. The work was done by Dieter Egli of Columbia University, New York, and Nissim Benvenisty, Hebrew University, Jerusalem. It was published in I. Sagi et al, 'Derivation and differentiation of haploid human embryonic stem cells', Nature (2016), doi:10.1038/nature17408. Sciences: Stem cells.

The sciences

Visit our science section to explore some of the most important sciences behind biotechnology and medicine including: Gene therapy. Gene therapy involves the insertion of one or more genes designed in the laboratory into a patient’s cells or tissues to treat a disease. Originally conceived as a treatment to correct rare genetic disorders, the method has gone on to be used as a means to re-engineer cells with characteristics to help them combat cancer or prevent their degeneration. While the promise of gene therapy has yet to be fully realised in the treatment of genetic disorders, it is now making important strides in the field of cancer immunotherapy. Click here to learn more about gene therapy.

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Special Exhibitions

Ever wanted to tread in the footsteps of scientists to understand how they come up with new ideas in the laboratory and translate these into new products for patients? You can do this by visiting our special exhibitions section. Using photographs, laboratory notebooks and other historical sources, these exhibitions bring to life some of this process. See for yourself some of the ups and downs the scientists have faced along the way.

The path to DNA sequencing: The life and work of Frederick Sanger

One of the most important tools in biotechnology and medicine today is DNA sequencing, invented by Frederick Sanger, a British biochemist. This exhibition follows the journey of Sanger starting in the 1940s when he began looking for ways to decipher the composition of proteins through to his development of DNA sequencing in the 1970s. Come see the time-consuming and painstaking steps Sanger went through to perfect the DNA sequencing technique and the many different areas of medicine where DNA sequencing is now being applied all the way from the Human Genome Project through to cancer and antimicrobial resistance.

Click here to view the exhibition

The life story of a monoclonal antibody

A third of all new medicines introduced into the world today are monoclonal antibodies, many of which go on to become blockbuster drugs. This exhibition is the story of how one specific monoclonal antibody, the oldest humanised monoclonal antibody created with therapeutic potential, moved from the laboratory bench through to the clinic and the impact it has had on patients' lives. The antibody, which originated from the CAMbridge PATHology family of antibodies, started life in 1979 not as a therapeutic, but as a laboratory tool for understanding the immune system. Within a short time, however, the antibody, YTH66.9, was being used to improve the success of bone marrow transplants and as a treatment for leukaemia, lymphoma, vasculitis, organ transplants and multiple sclerosis. Highlighting the many twists and turns that this monoclonal antibody took over time, this exhibition explores the multitude of actors and events involved in the making of a biotechnology drug.

Click here to view the exhibition

A Healthcare Revolution in the Making: The Story of César Milstein and Monoclonal Antibodies

Today monoclonal antibodies are indispensable to medicine. They are not only used as therapeutics, comprising six out of ten of the best selling drugs in the world, but are also critical to unravelling the pathways of disease and integral components of diagnostic tests. Yet, the story of how these unsung microscopic heroes came into the world and helped change healthcare remains largely untold. The journey of monoclonal antibodies all started when an Argentinian émigré called César Milstein arrived at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, the same laboratory where Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA. This exhibition tells the story of how Milstein came to develop monoclonal antibodies and demonstrated their clinical application for the first time.

Click here to view the exhibition

The people

Exploring the lives and works of the leading people from across the world like Hubert Schoemaker (pictured) whose efforts have helped build biotechnology into a world changing science. Hubert Schoemaker (Born:1950-03-23T00:00:00+00001950 - Died: 2006-01-01T00:00:00+00002006) Schoemaker was co-founder and first Chief Executive Officer of Centocor, an American biotechnology company that pioneered the commercialisation of monoclonal antibody diagnostics and therapeutics. Click here to learn more about Hubert Schoemaker.

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The places

Exploring the places and institutions, and people working in them, across the world like Stanford University Medical School (pictured) where the science of biotechnology has been developed. At the forefront of many biomedical advances since the Second World War, Stanford University Medical School played a pioneering role in the emergence of gene cloning. Click here to learn more about Stanford University Medical School.

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An ever-growing list of events, currently 1403 events, that have contributed to the growth of biotechnology. Click here to browse the timeline. For timelines for specific sciences click here: antibodies, CRISPR-Cas9, genetics, gene therapy, immunotherapy, monoclonal antibodies, vaccines, virology. For timelines for specific places click here: Cambridge University, Harvard University, The Laboratory of Molecular Biology, The Pasteur Institute, Rockefeller University, The Wistar Institute. For timelines for specific people click here: Cesar Milstein, Fred Sanger, Donall Thomas, Herman Waldmann.

The untold story of monoclonal antibodies

Yale University Press 9780300167733

Yale University Press has announced the publication of The Lock and Key of Medicine: Monoclonal Antibodies and the Transformation of Healthcare by (Yale University Press, Amazon). Forty years ago, viable monoclonal antibodies, imperceptibly small 'magic bullets', became available for the first time. First produced in 1975 by César Milstein and Georges Köhler at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England (where Watson and Crick unraveled the structure of DNA), Mabs have had a phenomenally far-reaching effect on our society and daily life. The Lock and Key of Medicine is the first book to tell the extraordinary yet unheralded history of monoclonal antibodies, or Mabs. Though unfamiliar to most nonscientists, these microscopic protein molecules are everywhere, quietly shaping our lives and healthcare. They have radically changed understandings of the pathways of disease, enabling faster, cheaper, and more accurate clinical diagnostic testing.

Historian of medicine Lara V. Marks recounts the risks and opposition that a daring handful of individuals faced while discovering and developing Mabs, and she addresses the related scientific, medical, technological, business, and social challenges that arose. She offers a saga of entrepreneurs who ultimately changed the healthcare landscape and brought untold relief to millions of patients. Even so, controversies over Mabs remain, which the author explores through the current debates on their cost-effectiveness.

Engineering Health: How Biotechnology Changed Medicine

The Royal Society of Chemistry 978-1-78262-084-6

The Royal Society of Chemistry has announced the publication of Engineering Health: How Biotechnology Changed Medicine edited by (The Royal Society of Chemistry). Written in an accessible style, experts trace the development of biotechnologies like stem cells, gene therapy, monoclonal antibodies and synthetic biology and how these are reshaping the diagnostic and therapeutic landscape.

Building on material from this website, this book shows the challenges behind the application of biotechnology to medicine. With medicines increasingly shifting from small organic molecules to large, complex structures, such as therapeutic proteins, drugs have become more difficult to make, administer and regulate. This book will intrigue anyone interested in the past, present and future of how we engineer better health for ourselves. The rise of biotechnology has major implications for how and where drugs are manufactured, the cost of medicine and how far society is prepared to go to combat disease.

Celebrating the first publication of monoclonal antibodies

It is now over 40 years since César Milstein and Georges Kohler published their technique for producing monoclonal antibodies. To celebrate the occasion we invite you to watch the film Un Fuegito about the life and work of Milstein, produced by Ana Fraile, Pulpofilms. The film, which you can find on vimeo.com, has been released to help raise funds for a new educational film to promote greater understanding about monoclonal antibodies and how they have transformed the lives of millions of patients across the world.

The Debate: Genome editing

Scientists have recently begun to adopt a new technique for genetic engineering, called CRISPR-Cas9, in a wide number fields ranging from agriculture to medicine. Part of its attraction is that it permits genetic engineering on an unprecedented scale and at a very low cost. The technique is already being used in a variety of fields (click here for more information about CRISPR-Cas9). But because of its potential to modify DNA in human embryos, it has prompted calls for a public debate about where the technology should be applied. Researchers working with WhatIsBiotechnology.org recently ran a pilot survey to gather people's views on the new technology. Dr Lara Marks, Managing Editor of WhatisBiotechnology.org and historian of medicine and Dr Silvia Camporesi, bioethicist at King's College London, led the project. Some 567 people contributed to the debate. The analysis of their contributions is available on this page.

Forthcoming projects

We are working on a number of new and exciting projects with highly talented partners and collaborators that we plan to launch in the latter part of this year and next year. These projects include an examination of the role of women in healthcare and the life sciences, a project about conquering hepatitis B and an in-depth exploration of the new sciences around cancer immunotherapy. Click here to find out more about the new projects that we are currently working on.