Over hot pastrami and corned beef sandwiches, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen opened the door to genetic engineering and laid the foundations for gene therapy and the biotechnology industry. For these outstanding achievements, the two collaborators received the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize in 1996.
Boyer and Cohen met in 1972, while presenting papers in Hawaii at a conference on bacterial plasmids. A Stanford University professor, Cohen had been working on ways to isolate specific genes in antibiotic carrying plasmids and clone them individually through introducing them to E. coli bacteria. Boyer, hailing from the University of California, San Francisco, had discovered a restriction enzyme that cut DNA strands at specific DNA sequences, producing "cohesive ends" that could stick to other pieces of DNA.
Following the conference, the two colleagues met at a local deli to discuss using plasmids as a vector for cloning individual DNA segments. Boyer and Cohen agreed to collaborate, and in a matter of months succeeded in splicing a piece of foreign DNA into a plasmid carrier, which then inserted genetic information into a bacterium. When the bacterium reproduced, it copied the foreign DNA into its offspring, acting as a natural factory producing biological substances.
By genetically engineering cells to produce human substances, Boyer and Cohen invented a quick and easy way to make chemicals like HGH (human growth hormone), synthetic insulin, factor VIII for hemophilia, somatostatin for acromegaly and clot-dissolving agent tissue plasmogen activator (tPA).
Boyer and Cohen have received three patents, from which over 350 licenses have been granted—generating approximately $27 million in royalties. Despite their achievements, Cohen modestly declares, "Boyer and I didn't set out to invent genetic engineering. Our invention came from efforts to understand basic biological phenomena and the realization that our findings had important practical applications."
Boyer, from western Pennsylvania, received his BS in biology and chemistry from St. Vincent's (1958) and his MS and PhD in bacteriology from the University of Pittsburgh (1963), followed by post-graduate work at Yale. He is currently a director at the leading biotech company Genentech, which he co-founded in 1976. Cohen, a native of Perth Amboy, NJ, received his BA in biological sciences from Rutgers University and his MD from the University of Pennsylvania. Cohen currently continues research in genetics at Stanford. Both Boyer and Cohen have received the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology, and are members of the National Academy of Sciences.