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Book Review: Gene Jockeys - Life Science and the Rise of Biotech Enterprise

24 November 2014
Appeared in BioNews 781

Gene Jockeys: Life Science and the Rise of Biotech Enterprise

By Professor Nicolas Rasmussen

Published by Johns Hopkins University Press

ISBN-10: 142141340X, ISBN-13: 978-1421413402

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Everybody has the same damn list.'

It was with these words that Peter Farley, one-time president of the biotechnology firm, Cetus, described the early days of commercial molecular biology. This race to clone, express and commercialise human genes is the focus of Nicolas Rasmussen's book 'Gene Jockeys', named after the half-insult/half-compliment used to describe the scientists driving the merger of science and commercialism.

Rasmussen maintains a careful balance between the science behind the rise of commercial biotechnology and the personalities driving it. Unfortunately, there are moments when the repeated description of the same fundamental techniques – cDNA synthesis, cloning, and gene expression – gets repetitive without delving deeper into biology behind them.

In a similar manner, since the rush to achieve scientific and commercial success was centered on the same list of 'low-hanging fruit' being worked on by a handful of researchers, the same names repeatedly crop up - but I failed to gain any understanding of the personalities beyond all of them being motivated, driven scientists.

As someone who trained in molecular biology laboratories, I enjoyed Rasmussen's perspective on how far the field has come over the last 40 years. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, techniques now routinely given to undergraduates were the cutting edge. It is an unspoken statement about how quickly the field has advanced and matured.

What also struck me is how little demand there was for the early products. The existing drug and pharmaceutical firms were already providing the medical establishment with the insulin, human growth hormone, etc. that it required. In a nice inverse of established rhetoric, the science drove the market and not the other way around. It was only because insulin and other hormones were so well studied and understood biologically that they could be cloned and commercialised.

Rasmussen successfully explores the landscape beyond the science, carefully highlighting the cultural changes that occurred during the rise of biotech. Against a background of tightening research budgets and dwindling job opportunities for highly skilled postdocs in academia, the companies of Genentech and its competitors are portrayed as 'postdoc republics'.

While commercial entities, the initial days preserved a lot of the informal hierarchy and 'traditions' of academic work – particularly in regards to the sharing of materials. Indeed, the scientific rewards of being the first to clone a particular gene were treated as important as the commercial rewards. As the field matured and the realities of patent protection and clinical trials became evident, this initial holdover of academic culture ebbed. The founding biotech companies evolved into firms not dissimilar from the large pharmaceutical enterprises they initially challenged.

'Gene Jockeys' is not a guide to cloning or a biography of the key people involved in developing commercial biotechnology. It is, however, an excellent insight into the change from academia to industry, a shift in values and practices that is as common today as it was in the early 1980s.

Buy Gene Jockeys: Life Science and the Rise of Biotech Enterprise from Amazon UK.

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