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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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 (22nd November) in years past:

1902-11-22T00:00:00+0000George Washington University School of Medicine

Walter Reed died (1902)

Reed was an American army pathology and bacteriologist who helped to confirm the work of Carlos Finlay that yellow fever is transmitted by the bite of a mosquito infected with Stegomyia fasciata (later renamed Aedes aegypti). This he did by leading experiments in Cuba between 1899 and 1900. The experiments involved the deliberate infection of human volunteers, including medical personnel, some of whom died. Reed's experiments put an end to the traditional thinking that yellow fever was transmitted by clothing and bedding soiled by the bodily fluids and excrement of yellow fever patients. The work paved the way to measures to control the mosquito population to prevent the spread of yellow fever. Sciences: Infectious diseases.

1912-11-22T00:00:00+0000Massachusetts General Hospital

Paul Zamecnik was born in Cleveland, Ohio, USA (1912)

Zamecnik pioneered the in vitro synthesis of proteins and helped determine the way cells generate proteins. Together with Mahlon Hoagland and Mary Stephenson he showed that protein synthesis was activated by adenosine 5?-triphosphate and that ribosomes were the site of protein assembly. He also subsequently helped to discover transfer RNA and is credited with laying the foundation for the development of antisense therapies, a type of gene therapy. Sciences: DNA, RNA, Gene therapy.

1917-11-22T00:00:00+0000Cambridge University, University College London

Andrew F Huxley was born in Hampstead, United Kingdom (1917)

Huxley was a physiologist and biophysicist who helped uncover the mechanism of muscle contraction in 1954 through experiments on the giant axon of the Atlantic Squid. His study of muscle fibres was helped by his development of interference microscopy. Huxley shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1963 for 'discoveries concerning the ionic mechanisms involved in excitation and inhibition in the peripheral and central portions of the nerve cell membrane'. Sciences: Cell, Neuroscience.

1981-11-22T00:00:00+0000University of Freiburg, Cambridge University, Sheffield University, Oxford University

Hans Adolf Krebs died (1981)

Krebs was a biochemist who in 1933 was forced to leave Nazi Germany because his father was Jewish. He is best known for having discovered two important chemical reactions in the body - the urea cycle and the citric acid cycle. These chemical reactions help break down food molecules into carbon dioxide, water and energy. He made the breakthrough in the 1930s. The process is known as the Krebs cycle. Krebs was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954. Sciences: Cell, Biochemistry.

2003-11-22T00:00:00+0000California Institute of Technology, Laboratory of Molecular Biology

John D Smith died (2003)

A British molecular biologist, Smith was a key pioneer in nucleic acid research. One of the few to realise the importance of nucleic acids before Watson and Crick uncovered the structure of DNA in 1953, Smith helped to elucidate the structure of ribonucleic acid molecules (RNA), the genetic material of many plant and animal viruses. This was helped by his development of paper chromatographic methods for analysing nucelosides and other units which make up DNA. He also helped to discover rare and unexpected modifications of DNA bases in bacterial genomes which are now understood to prevent attack from DNA viruses. Places: Laboratory of Molecular Biology. Sciences: Genetics, DNA, RNA.

2006-11-22T00:00:00+0000University of Calcutta

Asima Chatterjee died (2006)

Chatterjee was an Indian organic chemist who was the first woman to receive a doctorate in science from an Indian university - Calcutta University. Most of her work concentrated on researching various alkaloid compounds. She is best known for her discovery of the anti-epileptic activity of Marsilea minuta, an aquatic fern, which led to the development of the an epilepsy drug called Ayush-56. Chatterjee also found the anti-malarial properties of the plants Alstonia scholaris, Swertia chirata, Picrorhiza kurroa and Caesalpinia crista which led to antimalarial drugs.

The sciences

Visit our science section to explore some of the most important sciences behind biotechnology and medicine including: Transgenic animals. 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.

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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.

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.

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The people

Exploring the lives and works of the leading people from across the world like Rosalind Franklin (pictured) whose efforts have helped build biotechnology into a world changing science. Rosalind Franklin (Born:1920-07-25T00:00:00+00001920 - Died: 1958-04-16T00:00:00+00001958) Rosalind Franklin was an x-ray crystallographer whose work helped uncover the double-helix structure of DNA. Click here to learn more about Rosalind Franklin.

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The places

Exploring the places and institutions, and people working in them, across the world like Laboratory of Molecular Biology (pictured) where the science of biotechnology has been developed. A pioneer in the field of molecular biology, the Laboratory of Molecular Biology was the place where the helix-structure of DNA was finally determined and where the first long-surviving monoclonal antibodies were created. Click here to learn more about Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

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An ever-growing list of events, currently 2042 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 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.