Over the course of a decade, we’ve witnessed a change in the face of biotech and the way research is done. While the Information Age brought enormous advances in data acquisition, analysis, and sharing, the conversion of groundbreaking discoveries to revolutionary technologies continues to follow the same old pattern: a major breakthrough followed by a quiet revolution as those new ideas are put into practice.
Revolutionary discoveries may drive novel research, but it is new methodologies and new tools that support these new directions. The genetic engineering revolution rests on many game-changing ideas. The elucidation of nucleic acid structure (1953) and discovery and identification of transforming factors (1928, 1944) provided the basic model of DNA as genetic instructions. The methods for transforming bacteria in a lab setting didn’t appear, however, until 1972, around the time that efficient DNA sequencing and recombination techniques made their way into the lab.
1982 saw the first commercial application of genetic engineering reach markets in the form of Genentech’s Humulin, bacterially produced human insulin. At 51 amino acids (5.8 kDa), insulin is much smaller than today’s standard fare of mAbs (146 kDa for muromonab-CD3, approved in 1986) and much simpler to make than multistep small molecule syntheses.
But today’s breakthroughs stand on more than just the advancements that permitted cheaper, sterile insulin to better the lives of diabetics for decades. PCR worked its way into labs in the 1980s, and DNA sequencing technologies further improved with the appearance of automated sequencers and, later, pyrosequencers.
New techniques in the production of recombinant cell lines in plants, mammals, bacteria, and yeast supported new avenues in research. Basic scientific discoveries in the biology of genetic replication and human disease progression put new ideas on the table: Retroviruses became both tools and targets, diverse cancer biology implicated out-of-control signaling pathways, and the relationship between a cell and its environment was considered with increasing complexity as new physical and chemical interactions were identified.