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 20th May 2020

The recent briefing from Cambridge offers a glimmer of hope. No positive results have appeared in the tests rolled out by the research laboratory among healthcare workers in Cambridge over the past week. This suggests that the disease has slowed down within the hospital and community in Cambridge. Staff at Addenbrooke’s Hospital are now beginning to think about how to return things to normal but at the same time put in measures to cope with a potential second wave of infection. The team in Cambridge intend to get serological testing fully underway this week to understand the immune response to COVID-19. This is important because lots of antibody kits are now being sent out to people, but little is known about the antibodies produced and how they work. 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 (3rd June) in years past:


William Harvey died (1657)

Harvey was an English physician. He was the first physician to describe in detail the pump action of the heart and the circulation of blood. He published this work in 1628. His findings sparked controversy at the time because they challenged Galen's teachings that blood passed between ventricles through invisible pores and the traditional view that blood circulation involved two separate systems. Sciences: Cardiovascular.

1868-06-03T00:00:00+0000University of Havana

Aristides Agramonte y Simoni was born in Camaguey, Cuba (1868)

Agramonte was a physician, pathologist and bacteriologist who discovered the role of the mosquito in the transmission of yellow fever in 1901. He made the discovery while working as a professor of bacteriology and experimental pathology at the University of Havana and assistant surgeon with the US Army. An influential leader of scientific medicine in Cuba, Agramonte originally trained in medicine at Columbia University. In addition to his research on yellow fever, Agramonte studied the transmission of plague, dengue, trachoma, malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and other infectious diseases. Sciences: Bacteriology, Infectious diseases.

1873-06-03T00:00:00+0000Graz University

Otto Loewi was born in Frankfurt-on-the-Main, Germany (1873)

Loewi was a pharmacologist and physician. He is credited with the discovery of the first neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, in the brain. His work provided the first evidence that chemicals were involved in the transmission of impulses between nerve cells and from neurons to the responsive organ. He established this through investigations of the frog. Loewi was awarded the 1936 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work. Sciences: Neuroscience.

1904-06-03T00:00:00+0000Howard University

Charles R Drew was born in Washington DC, USA (1904)

Drew was an African-American physician and surgeon who specialised in blood transfusion. He was instrumental in the improvement of techniques for blood storage and the development of large-scale blood banks in the early part of the Second World War. His work helped save thousands of lives of many thousands of Allied soldiers in the war. Drew resigned from the American Red Cross in 1943 in protest against its practice of racial segregation in the donation of blood which he argued had no scientific foundation. He was the first African-American surgeon selected to be an examiner on the American Board of Surgery.

1929-06-03T00:00:00+0000University of Geneva

Werner Arber was born in Granichen, Switzerland (1929)

Werner Arber is a geneticist and microbiologist. He shared the 1978 Nobel Prize in 1978 for helping to discover restriction enzymes and showing their application in molecular genetics. It was based on some work he carried out in the 1960s. Arber indicated in 1965 that restriction enzymes could be used as a tool for cleaving DNA. The enzymes are now an important tool for genetic engineering. Profiles: Arber. Sciences: Restriction enzymes, Recombinant DNA, DNA Sequencing.

2015-06-03T00:00:00+0000University of California Irvine

Irwin Rose died (2015)

Rose was an American biochemist who shared the 2004 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for contributing to understandings about how cells break down proteins. He first became interested in the puzzle of how cells identify and destroy unwanted proteins in the 1950s. In the late 1970s he showed that ubiquitin, a protein present in countless tissues, helps tag other proteins that need to be destroyed. It then attaches itself to another protein that is no longer functioning and takes it to the proteasome chamber to be broken down and recycled. Rose also helped develop a drug to treat multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. The drug works by disrupting the protein disposal mechanism and kills the cancer cells with a pile-up of protein. Sciences: Biochemistry, Cell, Oncology.

The sciences

Visit our science section to explore some of the most important sciences behind biotechnology and medicine including: Phage display. Phage display is a laboratory platform that facilitates the study of protein to protein, protein to peptide, and protein to DNA interactions. The technology involves the genetic modification of bacteriophages (phages), single-stranded DNA viruses that infect bacteria so that they can display a target protein or peptide on their surface. When compiled into large libraries these phages enable the high-throughput screening of proteins to identify those which bind strongly to molecules of interest. Phage display is vital to many basic biomedical research applications and for drug discovery and pharmacology. Click here to learn more about phage display.

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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 James Allison (pictured) whose efforts have helped build biotechnology into a world changing science. James Allison (Born:1948-08-07T00:00:00+00001948) James Allison is best known for helping to elucidate the mechanism behind T cells activation and for pioneering the first immune checkpoint inhibitor drug for treating cancer. His work has radically transformed the landscape for cancer treatment, shifting it away from targeting a tumour to instead using the immune system to destroy cancer cells. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this work in 2018. Click here to learn more about James Allison.

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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 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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