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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Cracking Covid: The history of COG-UK

How a community came together to break the COVID code and brought about a revolution in genomic surveillance

Begun in December 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic saw the unprecedented coming together of the scientific community to find a solution to the unfolding devastation caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This exhibition explores the pioneering collaborative work undertaken by the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) to provide large-scale and rapid whole-genome virus sequencing to help track the evolution and spread of the virus. Set up and funded with remarkable speed, COG-UK led the world in terms of the volume of samples sequenced, which enabled it to rapidly track the movement of the pandemic and pick up more transmissible and worrying variants in real-time to inform public health measures.

Video exploring the COG-UK exhibition. Credit: Dr Andrew Jermy. Music credit: Alexander Nakarada, Serpent Sound Studios.

Using a rich collection of interviews conducted with many of the consortium’s participants, as well as messages they posted on social media and original documents, the exhibition charts the major challenges they faced in collecting, sharing and interpreting genomic data as well as the very long hours and sacrifices individuals made to contribute to COG-UK both within the laboratory and outside. Together this material provides a glimpse into the complex development of science as well as the social history behind the pandemic. Leaving behind an important legacy for future pathogen genomic surveillance, the history of COG-UK will be of interest to everyone seeking lessons to tackle future pandemics. Click here to view the exhibition.

The history of the organ-on-a-chip

Over 70% of drugs that appear promising in animal studies fail when tested in humans. Designed to replicate organs and tissue in the human body Organ-on-a-chip technology could radically reduce animal testing and the time and cost in drug discovery and development. First conceived as an idea in 1876, Organ-on-a-chips have taken many years to materialise. 2022 marks the first year data collected from the technology has been used to gain regulatory authorisation for launching human trials with a drug. Getting to this point has involved the coming together of many different players from different disciplines. Still in its infancy, Organ-on-a-chip has had a fascinating journey and is just at the beginning of showing its potential. Click here to visit our new profile of the organ-on-a-chip.

The history of messenger RNA (mRNA)

Billions of patients have now received mRNA COVID vaccines. First found in 1956, scientists took many decades to find a method to use mRNA for medical applications. This development was not a smooth linear process and involved many different players from multiple disciplines, a number of whom struggled to gain recognition and funding for their work. Once dismissed as just a pipedream, the power of mRNA for vaccines is only the beginning of where the molecule could prove useful to patients. To find out more about the long journey mRNA has taken to reach the clinic and its potential future. Click here to visit our new profile on mRNA.

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: The story of June Almeida: From teenager photographer to immune electron microscopy pioneer. 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 (4th June) in years past:

1916-06-04T00:00:00+0000State University of New York

Robert F Furchgott was born in Charleston, SC, USA (1916)

Furchgott was a biochemist. He is best known for having shown the signalling function of nitric oxide in the cardiovascular system. In 1966 he noticed a substance in cells on the interior surface of blood vessels were capable of relaxing the blood vessels. He called the substance endothelium-derived relaxing factor (EDRF). By 1986 he had worked out the function and mechanism of action of EDRF and found out that it was a nitric oxide. Awarded the Nobel Prize in 1998 on the back of this work, Furchgott's discoveries helped explained a wide variety of neuronal, cardiovascular and other physiological processes important to human health and disease. Sciences: Pharmacology, Cardiovascular.

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.

Cracking Covid: The history of COG-UK

Millions of SARS-CoV-2 viral genomes have been sequenced since COVID-19 began. Helping to track the evolution and spread of the pandemic in real-time, this sequencing was led by the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK). Set up with remarkable speed and foresight, in March 2020, the history of COG-UK is documented in this exhibition. Its work was pivotal to the quick detection of more transmissible and worrying variants which helped inform public health. The exhibition serves as a monument to the hard toil and sacrifices many scientists and others went through to overcome the adversities of the pandemic and save lives. Leaving behind an important legacy, the history of COG-UK will be of interest to everyone seeking to understand how to tackle future pandemics. (Credit: Cartoon by Alex Cagan)

Click here to view the exhibition

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.

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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 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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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 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 Stanford University Medical School (pictured) where the science of biotechnology has been developed. At the forefront of many biomedical advances since the Second World War, Stanford University Medical School played a pioneering role in the emergence of gene cloning. Click here to learn more about Stanford University Medical School.

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An ever-growing list of events, currently 2,628 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.

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