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 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. Deep dives in the resources include: The history of Covid-19 within context of coronaviruses. Click here to access the COVID-19 related resources.

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 (28th October) in years past:

1912-10-28T00:00:00+0000Central Middlesex Hospital

Richard Doll was born in Hampton, Middlesex, United Kingdom (1912)

Doll was a physician and epidemiologist who first made his name by demonstrating the link between tobacco smoking and health problems, including cancer and heart disease. He first made the link in 1950 after studying lung cancer patients in 20 London hospitals. Originally the cancer was thought to be caused by tarmac or motor car fumes, but Doll rapidly discovered that tobacco smoking was the only factor the patients shared in common. Publishing the study in the British Medical Journal, Doll pointed out that the risk of developing lung cancer was 50 times greater among those who smoked 25 or more cigarettes a day than among non-smokers. Doll himself stopped smoking based on his findings.

1914-10-28T00:00:00+0000University of Pittsburgh

Jonas Salk was born in New York City, USA (1914)

A medical researcher and virologist, Salk pioneered the first safe and effective polio vaccine. Introduced in 1955, Salk's vaccine helped curb one of the most frightening public health diseases in the world. Over 1,800,000 school children took part in the trial to test his vaccine. His vaccine used killed virus rather than weakened forms of the strain of polio used by Sabin to develop another vaccine against the disease. Salk refused to patent his vaccine and made his technique as widely available as possible. His polio vaccine is now on the World Health Organisation's List of Essential Medicine. Sciences: Virology, Infectious diseases.

1914-10-28T00:00:00+0000Rowett Research Institute

Richard L M Synge was born in Liverpool, United Kingdom (1914)

Synge was an English biochemist who shared the 1952 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the invention of liquid-liquid paper partition chromatography, a technique used to separate mixtures of closely related chemicals such as amino acids. The technique revolutionised analytical chemistry. By 1948 Synge had managed to work out the exact structure of S gramicidin, a simple protein molecule, using the partition technique. Fred Sanger used this work in his elucidation of the structure of insulin in 1955. Sciences: Analytical chemistry, Biochemistry.

1997-10-28T00:00:00+0000Brookhaven National Laboratory

Marian E Koshland died (1997)

Koshland was an American immunologist who was a major pioneer in the field of antibodies. Her work was instrumental in showing antibodies to be discrete antibodies and knowledge about the origins of antibody specificity. In the 1960s, she demonstrated that the efficiency and effectiveness with which antibodies can combat foreign invaders is determined by their different amino acid compositions. By the 1990s she had unravelled the process that accompanies and directs B cell activation and maturation. A major role-model for other women scientists, Koshland was nearly not awarded her PhD because her professor thought it would be a waste because she was pregnant. Sciences: Immunology, Antibodies.

2003-10-28T00:00:00+0000Rockefeller Institute, Columbia University

Marie M Daly died (2003)

Daly trained as a biochemist and was the first Black American woman to earn a doctorate in chemistry (from Columbia University, 1947). Her early research looked at the effects of cholesterol on the mechanisms of the heart, the effects sugars and other nutrients on the health of the arteries and the impact of advanced aged and hypertension on the circulatory system. This she did at Rockefeller Institute in New York. She subsequently joined Columbia University where she investigated how proteins are produced and organised in the cell. In addition to her scientific work, Daly was an ardent campaigner for getting minority students into medical school and graduate science programmes. Sciences: Biochemistry, Cardiovascular.

The sciences

Visit our science section to explore some of the most important sciences behind biotechnology and medicine including: Cancer immunotherapy. In 2016 the American Society of Clinical Oncology nominated immunotherapy as one of the most significant medical breakthroughs for cancer. How does cancer immunotherapy work? Cancer immunotherapy is designed to induce, enhance, or suppress the body’s immune system to combat tumours by using the body’s own properties, or cells grown in the laboratory. Such therapy takes two different forms. The first, known as active immunotherapy, aims to stimulate the immune system, and the second, known as passive immunotherapy, aims to strengthen the cancer patient's immune system. Immunotherapy is achieved through a number of different approaches. These range from re-activating a switch in immune cells that tumour cells turn off to prevent their own destruction, to tagging cancer cells for their elimination by immune cells, or genetically modifying a patient’s own T cells, the foot soldiers of the immune system, to directly destroy cancer cells. Immunotherapy developed on the back of knowledge accumulated from the early development of vaccines and serum therapies for infectious diseases. Click here to learn more about cancer immunotherapy.

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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.

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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 Brigitte Askonas (pictured) whose efforts have helped build biotechnology into a world changing science. Brigitte Askonas (Born:1923-04-01T00:00:00+00001923 - Died: 2013-01-09T00:00:00+00002013) 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.

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The places

Exploring the places and institutions, and people working in them, across the world like Basel Institute of Immunology (pictured) where the science of biotechnology has been developed. A leading centre for immunological research from 1971 to 2000, the Basel Institute of Immunology helped lay the groundwork for the development of monoclonal antibodies. Click here to learn more about Basel Institute of Immunology.

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Timeline

An ever-growing list of events, currently 2220 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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