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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Raising awareness of antimicrobial resistance

Now that the world's attention is focused on combating COVID-19, it is easy to forget another significant threat to public health and the global economy - the rise of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Yet, the problem has not disappeared. Indeed, the pandemic could be accelerating it. We are delighted to announce the launch of a new exhibition which explores the history of antimicrobial resistance and scientists’ efforts to overcome the problem. Click here to view the exhibition.

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: Long-COVID – The nightmare that won't end - A researcher's first hand perspective. Other resources cover: Transcript of interview with Professor Barton Haynes. 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.

Conquering Hepatitis B:
A revolution for public health and vaccine safety

Hepatitis B is a major global health problem.The tenth leading cause of death globally, the disease is caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV) that attacks the liver. More infectious than HIV, the virus globally claims the lives of more than 900,000 people each year. Spread by exposure to infected blood and bodily fluids, the virus infects at least one in three people worldwide at some point in their lives. Hepatitis B is particularly worrying because its carriers initially show no symptoms but it can cause serious damage to the liver which results in deaths from cirrhosis or liver cancer many years later. The group most at risk of becoming infected and transmitting the virus are infants. The only thing that can break the cycle of hepatitis B infection is through vaccination. First introduced in the early 1980s, this vaccine has dramatically reduced the incidence of hepatitis B. The vaccine is a fascinating history on several accounts. Not only was it the first vaccine to protect against cancer, it was also the first one to be made with just a subunit of a virus which opened up a new chapter for improving the safety of vaccines overall. For more about the story behind the vaccine click here.

This day in biotechnology

The following events took place on this day (30th November) in years past:

1889-11-30T00:00:00+0000Cambridge University

Edgar Douglas Adrian born in London, UK (1889)

Adrian was an electrophysiologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1932 for his discoveries relating to the nerve cell. This he did with the help of a capillary electrometer and cathode ray tube to amplify the signals produced by the nerve system. Recording the electrical discharge of single nerve fibres under stimulus in a frog he was the first to prove the presence of electricity within nerve cells. This paved the way to a better understanding of the physical basis of sensation and the mechanism of muscular control. His work on the electrical activity of the brain opened up new investigations into epilepsy and the location of cerebral lesions. Sciences: Neuroscience.

1926-11-30T00:00:00+0000Veterans Administration Hospital

Andrew V Schally was born in Wilno (now Vilnius), Poland (now Lithuania) (1926)

Schally was an endocrinologist who won the 1977 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for isolating and synthesising three hormones produced by the hypothalmus in the brain which control the activities of hormone producing glands. The hormones he worked on were TRH (thyrotropin-releasing hormone), LHRH (luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone), and the peptide somatostatin. His work led to recognition of the hypothalmus as the controlling factor of the pituitary gland and opened a new chapter for research into fertility, contraception, diabetes, abnormal growth, mental retardation as well as depression and other mental disorders. Sciences: Endocrinology, Biochemistry.

2007-11-30T00:00:00+0000Kyoto University

Human cells reprogrammed to make pluripotent stem cells (2007)

Japanese researchers Shinya Yamanaka and Kazutoshi Takahashi reported the generation of pluripotent stem cells from mature human fibroblasts. Their technique opened the possibility of producing stem cells from almost any other human cell. They published their method in K Takahashi, K Tanabe, M Onnuki, et al 'Induction of pluripotent stem cells from adult human fibroblasts by defined factors', Cell, 131/5 (2007), 861-72. Sciences: Stem cells.

2007-11-30T00:00:00+0000Purdue University, California Institute of Technology

Seymour Benzer died (2007)

The son of Jewish Polish immigrants, Benzer was an American molecular biologist who proved that genetic mutations were caused by changes in the DNA sequence. This was based on some experiments he pursued with mutant T4 bacteriophages, known as r mutants. In 1952 he spotted abnormal behaviour in one mutant strain and a year later devised a technique to measure the recombination frequency between different r mutant strains to map the substructure of a single gene. His work laid the path to determining the detailed structure of viral genes. Benzer also coined the term cistron to denote functional subunits of genes. Together with Ronald Konopka, his student, Benzer also discovered the first gene to control an organism's sense of time, in 1971. In later he worked on genes and the process of ageing in fruit flies. Sciences: DNA.

2008-11-30T00:00:00+0000Hammersmith Hospital

Naomi Datta died (2008)

Datta was a British microbial geneticist who showed that multi-antibiotic resistance was transferred between bacteria by plasmids. She first made the connection in 1959 after investigating a severe outbreak of Salmonella typhimurium phage-type 27 at Hammersmith Hospital where she worked. This involved an examination of 309 cultures, of which she found 25 were drug resistant, eight of which were resistant to Streptomycin which had been used to treat the patients. She concluded that the antibiotic resistance developed over time because the earlier cultures of the salmonella typhimurium infection (from the start of the outbreak) were not drug resistant. Sciences: Antimicrobial resistance.

The sciences

Visit our science section to explore some of the most important sciences behind biotechnology and medicine including: Nanopore sequencing. Taking 25 years to materialise, nanopore sequencing is now one of the most promising technologies for deciphering the code of DNA and RNA. Available in portable devices, nanopore sequencing has revolutionised the process of DNA and RNA sequencing. Importantly, it enables sequencing to be carried out in remote areas with limited resources. This makes it possible to detect, track and halt the spread of pathogens responsible for infectious disease outbreaks in real-time on the ground for the first time. The benefits of nanopore sequencing were first seen in the case of the Ebola and Zika viruses and today it is a critical tool for COVID-19. A quarter of all the world’s SARS-CoV-2 virus genomes have been sequenced with nanopore devices. Nanopore sequencing also provides a means to rapidly identify and monitor bacteria resistant to antibiotics, another rising public health threat. Combating infectious diseases is just the start of the multiple possibilities nanopore sequencing offers. Click here to learn more about nanopore sequencing.

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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 history of antimicrobial resistance and scientists' struggles to overcome the problem

Rising antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is one of the most pressing public health and global economic challenges the world faces today alongside COVID-19. If left unchecked, AMR could wipe out many of the advances medicine has made in recent times. One of the most disturbing aspects of AMR today is that many common infections and minor injuries, like a simple paper cut to the finger or a scratch, could become potentially fatal. What is AMR? Where does it come from and how have scientists tried to combat the problem over time? What new tools are now on the horizon that could help improve the use of antibiotics and help preserve their efficacy for the future?

Explore our extensive collection of resources about the issue, including resources designed as teaching resources.

Click here to view the exhibition

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

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 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.

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 people

Exploring the lives and works of the leading people from across the world like Jennifer Doudna (pictured) whose efforts have helped build biotechnology into a world changing science. Jennifer Doudna (Born:1964-02-19T00:00:00+00001964) Doudna first made her name uncovering the basic structure and function of the first ribozyme, a type of catalytic ribonucleic acid (RNA) that helps catalyse chemical reactions. This work helped lay the foundation for her later helping to pioneer CRISPR-Cas 9, a tool that has provided the means to edit genes on an unprecedented scale and at minimal cost. In addition to her scientific contributions to CRISPR, Doudna is known for spearheading the public debate to consider the ethical implications of using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit human embryos. Click here to learn more about Jennifer Doudna.

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The places

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.

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An ever-growing list of events, currently 2294 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

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the media has been filled with stories about the use of antibodies for both diagnosing and treating the disease. Both the antibody tests and therapeutics have not appeared out of nowhere. They rest on a major breakthrough that was made in Britain in 1975 by César Milstein and Georges Köhler at the Laboratory of Medicine in Cambridge, which provided a means to produce endless quantities of what are known as monoclonal antibodies. Awarded the Nobel Prize in 1984, Milstein and Köhler's invention marked a major turning point as before then there was no means to produce standardised antibodies.

Derived from naturally occurring proteins made by the body's immune system to recognise and fight foreign invaders, like bacteria and viruses, monoclonal antibodies have had a phenomenally far-reaching effect on our society and daily life. Though unfamiliar to most non-scientists, 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. More than 100 monoclonal antibody drugs have also been approved in the past 30 years.

How Milstein and Köhler developed the first monoclonal antibodies and they went onto become one of medicine's most important tools is recounted by Lara Marks in her book 'The Lock and Key of Medicine' (Yale University Press, Amazon).

In August 2020 the book was listed in The Guardian by Mark Honigsbaum as among the top best books on medical breakthroughs alongside that of James Watson's memoir 'The Double Helix' and Rebecca Skloot's 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'.

Engineering Health: How Biotechnology Changed Medicine

The Royal Society of Chemistry 978-1-78262-084-6

Possibly never in recent history have advances in biotechnology generated so much public interest than during the unfolding of the COVID-19 epidemic. The unprecedented pace at which vaccines have been developed and diagnostic tests rolled out could not have been achieved without the many different biological tools that have emerged since the 1970s. But what are these tools, what are their origins and where are they helping improve patients' lives? This is the subject of 'Engineering Health: How Biotechnology Changed Medicine' edited by '' (The Royal Society of Chemistry).

As the book makes clear,applying new biotechnologies in medicine is not without great challenges. As medicines shift from small organic molecules to large, complex structures, such as therapeutic proteins, drugs become difficult to make, administer and regulate. Among the technologies examined in the book are genetic engineering, DNA sequencing, monoclonal antibodies, stem cells, gene therapy, cancer immunotherapy and the most recent newcomer - synthetic biology.

The book will intrigue anyone interested in medicine and how we have been, and may continue to, engineer better health for ourselves. Such changes have major implications for how and where drugs are manufactured, the cost of medicine and the ethics of how far society is prepared to go to combat disease.

Book review: Michael Gross, ‘The book has turned out surprisingly readable, with Marks' own chapters being very accessible and lay-friendly. The book impresses with 19th and 20th century historical connections to things that are topical today.’ Chemistry & Industry Magazine, Issue 05, 2018.

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. This includes one 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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