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
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 (25th April) in years past:
Felix d'Herelle was born in Montreal, Canada (1873)
d'Herelle was a microbiologist who co-discovered bacteriophages (phages), viruses that infect bacteria that are now major tools in biotechnology. He isolated the first phage from chicken faeces in 1919. Following this he successfully treated chicken affected by a plague of typhus with the phage and in August 1919 cured a patient with dysentery using the same method. This laid the basis for the development of phage therapy. Sciences: Antibacterial agents, Bacteriophages, Bacteriology, Virology.
Unique 'idiotype' marker discovered on the surface of proteins in cancer cells, providing target for treating cancer with antibodies (1975)
The marker was found by George and Freda Stevenson, a husband and wife team at the Tenovus Research Laboratory, Southampton University. This they found during investigations of leukaemia in guinea-pigs. They called the marker 'idiotype' because it was identical on every tumour cells but different for every other normal B lymphocytes. Their findings paved the way to development of cancer immunotherapy. The work was published in G T Stevenson, F K Stevenson, 'Antibody to a molecularly-defined antigen confined to a tumour cell surface', Nature, 254 (1975), 714-16. Sciences: Antibodies, Oncology.
Visit our science section to explore some of the most important sciences behind biotechnology and medicine including: PCR. PCR (polymerase chain reaction) denotes a process that is used to replicate DNA. The first step in PCR, known as denaturing, involves heating a DNA sample to separate its two strands. Once separated the two strands are used as templates to synthesise two new DNA strands. This is done with the help of an enzyme called Taq polymerase. Once made, the newly synthesised molecules are used as templates to generate two more copies of DNA. The two basic steps involved in PCR, denaturing and synthesis, are repeated multiple times with the help of a thermocycler, a machine that automatically alters the temperature every few minutes. Each time the process of denaturing and synthesis occurs, the number of DNA molecules doubles. This makes it possible to generate one billion exact copies of an original target DNA within a couple of hours. Click here to learn more about PCR.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Exploring the lives and works of the leading people from across the world like James Allison (pictured) whose efforts have helped build biotechnology into a world changing science. James Allison (Born: 1948) James Allison is best known for helping to elucidate the mechanism behind T cells activation and for pioneering the first immune checkpoint inhibitor drug for treating cancer. His work has radically transformed the landscape for cancer treatment, shifting it away from targeting a tumour to instead using the immune system to destroy cancer cells. Click here to learn more about James Allison.
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.
An ever-growing list of events, currently 1414 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 has announced the publication of The Lock and Key of Medicine: Monoclonal Antibodies and the Transformation of Healthcare by Lara V. Marks (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 has announced the publication of Engineering Health: How Biotechnology Changed Medicine edited by Lara V. Marks (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.
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.