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
This day in biotechnology
The following events took place on this day (24th September) in years past:
Howard Walter Florey was born (1898)
Florey helped develop a method to isolate and purify penicillin for clinical use.
Severo Ochoa was born in Luarca, Spain (1905)
A biochemist, Ochoa shared the 1959 Nobel Prize for Medicine for 'discovery of the mechanisms in the biological synthesis of ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid.'
Visit our science section to explore some of the most important sciences behind biotechnology and medicine including:
Epigenetics is currently one of the fastest growing research areas in the life sciences and medicine. This is the study of how genes are switched on and off, a process that regulates the production of proteins which underpins normal cellular development and disease. To find out more about what epigenetics is and its revolutionary potential to transform our understanding of diseases like cancer and improve their treatment go to our explanation of the science epigenetics.
In 2017, for the second year in a row, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, heralded cancer immunotherapy as one of the most significant breakthroughs for cancer treatment. Such therapy, however, is not new and has a long history. To find out more about the origins of cancer immunotherapy, how it works and its many different forms see our overview of cancer immunotherapy.
Everyday the media carries stories of cancer patients originally given just weeks to live who have gone into remission for years after taking drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors. The most famous example is that of the former US president Jimmy Carter. Want to know what immune checkpoint inhibitors are, where they have come from, and what promise they hold for the future treatment of cancer? Find out by visiting our introduction to immune checkpoint inhibitors.
Transgenic animals are those that have had their genes deliberately altered to give them specific characteristics they would not otherwise possess naturally. Such genetically modified animals play a pivotal role in determining the genetic cause of disease and the discovery and testing of new treatments. Click here to learn more about transgenic animals.
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.
Women in biotechnology
Find out about some of the hidden women at the cutting edge of biotechnology by visiting our profile of some of the women who have helped shape biotechnology. This forms part of our ongoing project to develop an online exhibition about women in biotechnology for which we are seeking donations. The exhibition is to be launched in 2017 to commemorate the 150th birthday of Marie Curie.
Exploring the lives and works of the leading people from across the world like Brigitte Askonas (pictured) whose efforts have helped build biotechnology into a world changing science. Brigitte Askonas (Born: 1923 - Died: 2013) Askonas co-developed one of the first systems for the cloning of antibody-forming B cells in vivo, some of the earliest monoclonal antibodies. She was also one of the first scientists to isolate and clone virus specific T lymphocytes, laying the foundation for defining different influenza sub-sets and improving vaccines. Click here to learn more about Brigitte Askonas.
Exploring the places and institutions, and people working in them, across the world like Wistar Institute (pictured) where the science of biotechnology has been developed.America's first non-profit independent research institution, the Wistar Institute played an important role in the development of monoclonal antibodies and is today renowned for its cancer research and vaccine development. Click here to learn more about Wistar Institute.
An ever-growing list of events, currently 1349 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.
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.