What is Biotechnology

WhatIsBiotechnology is a leading educational and public engagement platform 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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The COVID-19 pandemic

As part of our mission to educate we have started to cover the COVID-19 pandemic focusing on the diagnostics, vaccines and treatments being developed across the world and the scientists at the front of the battle to identify and treat the virus. We will be running regularly updated COVID-19 briefings and developing resources and materials about COVID-19. Click here to access those COVID-19 related resources.

COVID-19 Briefing for 22nd June 2020

To date the small research laboratory in Cambridge have screened 6,000 healthcare workers for COVID-19. The good news is that few positive cases have shown up in the last couple of weeks. Data collected from the screening has provided important insights into how infection prevention and control measures, including staff testing, can help prevent hospitals turning into hubs of transmission and how other places could resume work safely. Cambridge University is now arranging for all symptomatic individuals working for the university to be screened as part of its measures to ensure health and safety for people going back to work. Life within the laboratory is slowly getting back to normal and projects started before the pandemic are beginning to be resumed. This includes a project to develop vaccines and monoclonal antibody therapy to combat bacterial infections. Such tools are vital for tackling bacterial diseases resistant to antibiotics which has been accelerating in recent years and cannot be afford to be forgotten in the ongoing crisis with COVID-19. Read this COVID-19 Briefing.

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. Click here to see a timeline of initiatives implemented to promote gender equality in the biomedical sciences. Click here to see a timeline of some some key biomedical discoveries in which women played a pivotal role.

This day in biotechnology

The following events took place on this day (5th July) in years past:

1888-07-05T00:00:00+0000Rockefeller Institute

Herbert Spencer Gasser was born in Platteville WI, USA (1888)

Gasser was a physiologist. He shared the 1944 Nobel Prize for Medicine for discovering different fibers in nerves that conduct electrochemical pulses at different rates. Together with Josepph Erlanger he studied the barely detectable electrical impulses carried by mammalian nerve fibres. By 1924 they had managed to visualise amplified nerve impulses on a fluorescent screen. Their work demonstrated that one type of fiber conducts pain signals and others conduct motor control signals. Gasser was the director of the Rockefeller Institute from 1936 to 1953. Sciences: Neuroscience.

1891-07-05T00:00:00+0000Rockefeller Institute

John H Northrop born in Yonkers NY, USA (1891)

Northrop shared the 1946 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for helping to develop the technique for purifying and crystallising enzymes and virus proteins. His work showed that enzymes obey the laws of chemical reactions and that they are proteins. In 1930 he crystallised pepsin, an enzyme present in gastric juice necessary for digestion. Eight years later he isolated the first bacterial virus (bacteriophage). This he proved to be a nucleoprotein. Other enzymes that he managed to isolate and crystalise were trypsin and chymotrypsin, both important to the digestive process. Sciences: Biochemistry.

1927-07-05T00:00:00+0000University of Heidelberg

Albrecht Kossel died (1927)

Kossel was a German biochemist who was a key pioneer in the field of genetics. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1910 for having isolated and described the five organic compounds present in nucleic acid. The compounds he isolated were adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine, and uracil. These are key to the formation of DNA and RNA. Kossel's work also laid the foundation for determining the composition of protein and its polypetides. Sciences: Genetics.

1974-07-05T00:00:00+0000

Temporary moratorium called for on genetic engineering until measures taken to deal with potential biohazards (1974)

The call was published by P Berg et al 'Biohazards of Recombinant DNA,' Science, 185 (1974), 3034. It argued for the establishment of an advisory committee to oversee experimental procedures to evaluate the potential biological hazards of recombinant DNA molecules and develop procedures to minimise the spread of such molecules within human and other populations. Profiles: Berg, Boyer, Cohen. Sciences: Recombinant DNA.

1996-07-05T00:00:00+0000Roslin Institute

Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, was born (1996)

Dolly the sheep was created by cloning an adult cell. This was done by transferring the nucleus of an adult sheep's cell to the nucleus of an unfertilised egg cell. It took 277 attempts to achieve success. The work was carried out by Keith Campbell, Ian Wilmut and colleagues at the Rosilin Institute, PPL Therapeutics and the Ministry of Agriculture. Sciences: Cloning, Transgenic animals.

The sciences

Visit our science section to explore some of the most important sciences behind biotechnology and medicine including: DNA. DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is a long stringy molecule that carries the genetic instructions necessary for all living organisms to grow, develop, function and reproduce. The discovery of its structure and function underpins many of the recent advances that have been made in understanding the molecular cause of disease and the formulation of new avenues of treatment. Click here to learn more about DNA.

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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.

Seattle Genetics: A case study of drug development

Drug discovery and development is a very complex process. Getting a drug to market can take years, even decades, and involves many scientific, financial and regulatory hurdles. This makes drug discovery and development a highly risky and a long and expensive business. Many drugs that appear promising in the laboratory fall by the wayside in clinical trials because they prove unsafe or ineffective. A great deal of money can thus be invested by a company in a drug candidate with little return. In this exhibition we follow the complex process of drug discovery and development through the story of Seattle Genetics, a small American biotechnology company set up in 1998 to develop cancer therapeutics. As the exhibition reveals, the success of drug development is not only reliant on scientific and clinical progress. Securing enough funding and the right partners is also essential to the process.

Click here to view the exhibition

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.

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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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Timeline

An ever-growing list of events, currently 2216 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 developing a number of new and exciting projects with highly talented partners and collaborators. These include one with Professor Gordon Dougan and his team at Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre to raise awareness about the rise of antimicrobial resistance and the efforts scientists are now taking to curb its spread in both the hospital setting and out in the community and another with St Saviour's and St Olave's School and Create Fertility to bring to life the history behind IVF to improve young people’s understanding about the challenge of infertility and the science behind its treatment. We are also developing a project with the Education Development Center and the Hepatitis B Foundation to raise greater awareness about how vaccines are made and work to prevent disease, starting with the story of the hepatitis B vaccine.

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