Derry native Herbert Boyer looks toward future in return to St. Vincent
June 15, 2013 4:00 AM
Herbert W. Boyer, co-founder of the biotechnology company Genentech Inc. and a pioneer in genetic engineering, meets with the media Friday before presenting the keynote speech at the dedication of the Sis and Herman Dupre Science Pavilion at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. "Fifty years ago I thought I could see into the future," he said. "But that future came fast."
By David Templeton Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Derry native returns once or twice a year to Saint Vincent College, his alma mater, and rural Westmoreland County to visit friends and enjoy the outdoors.
But on Friday, the famous scientist returned home to dedicate the $39 million Sis and Herman Dupre Science Pavilion, which will serve as headquarters for the Saint Vincent school named in his honor: the Herbert W. Boyer School of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Computing.
As main speaker during the dedication ceremony, Mr. Boyer addressed the biomedical topic, "50 Years from Now," noting the impressive advances he's witnessed in the 50 years since receiving his Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Pittsburgh.
He is projecting ever faster and more impressive advances in coming years but with some cautions. For example, medical advances are being countered by lifestyle, including obesity.
"Fifty years ago I thought I could see into the future," he said. "But that future came fast. Everything I predicted to happen in the next 50 years happened in 10.
"I feel very lucky to have lived in a time when so much was learned about medicine, science and life -- and to have participated in that," he said.
Mr. Boyer, 76 and now retired, is one of Saint Vincent's most notable alumni as a scientific heavyweight who has received biomedical science's highest awards, short of a Nobel Prize. He pioneered the creation of recombinant DNA while initiating development of the biotechnology industry to use genetic engineering to create life-saving medications.
In 1973, Mr. Boyer and Stanley Cohen joined forces to do research marking the birth of genetic engineering, The two developed a method not only to clone DNA, but split DNA and combine individual sequences from different species into a single sequence. The resulting recombinant DNA could replicate itself and produce proteins, synthetic antibiotics or other genetic impacts to treat disease.
In 1976, he and Robert Swanson cofounded Genentech Inc., based in San Francisco, to translate that science into genetically engineered medications. In 37 years, Genentech remains a biotech giant that holds 10,500 patents and has 12,300 employees, with 35 medications on the market to treat many of the world's most dangerous and difficult-to-treat diseases.
Initially, Genentech developed a method to use bacteria to generate synthetic human insulin. His initial work also led to the creation of a growth hormone for children and a blood-clotting factor for people with hemophilia. Genentech has gone on to create important medications for various cancers, heart disease and stroke, hemophilia, hepatitis A and B, asthma and cystic fibrosis, among many others.
"It's been extremely gratifying," he said, shortly before delivering his address. "The thing that's really neat is having friends who have children and grandchildren who have been treated with the medications. The wife of a best friend had a stroke and was successfully treated with Activase" -- a drug Genentech developed to dissolve blood clots in stroke victims.
He and Mr. Cohen received the 1996 Lemelson-MIT Prize for their innovations and creativity as pioneers in biotechnology.
"The last 50 years has seen an exponential expansion in biomedical science, and we stand on the brink of understanding far beyond what we knew then," he said. "But we are far from knowing everything."
While medical science will advance ever more quickly, he cautioned against expecting a universal cancer cure.
"Every cancer is a Darwinian experiment in evolution that wants to grow and divide out of control and recruit other cells and replicate itself," he said. "It's an unending battle. You won't have a universal cure."
In the 1950s, people faced a 5 percent chance of living five years beyond diagnosis. That has expanded to 50 percent, with expectation that the percent will continue to grow.
"They will continue to make it more manageable," Mr. Boyer said. "The big push now is prevention."