Herbert Boyer – A Short Profile of Herbert W. Boyer


Molecular geneticist Herbert W. Boyer is best known for his contributions to the field of biotech, particularly regarding his role as one of the co-founders of the biotech giant Genentech, Inc. He is also considered a pioneer in the field of recombinant DNA technology. Among his many accolades, he is a recipient of the 1990 National Medal of Science and co-recipient of the 1996 Lemelson-MIT Prize.

Notable Early Achievements

Dr. Boyer earned his bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from Saint Vincent College in 1958, received his PhD at the University of Pittsburgh in 1963, and completed three years of postgraduate work in the laboratories of Professors Edward Adelberg and Bruce Carlton at Yale University. He then moved West to join the faculty of the University of California, San Francisco, where he made a number of important discoveries. In 1973, he and Stanley Norman Cohen, a fellow researcher, created the first genetically engineered organism. The pair transferred genes offering antibiotic resistance into a plasmid which was inserted into E.coli. The generations of bacteria that followed were found to be resistant to some antibiotics. It started a revolution in genetic engineering and biotechnology.

The Birth and Growth of Genentech

In 1976, Boyer was contacted by venture capitalist Robert Swanson who had heard about his work with Cohen and after a series of informal meetings, they agreed to start a pharmaceutical company. A year later the company produced the first human hormone (somatostatin) in a microbe (E. coli). The following year, Genentech produced the first synthetic insulin using his new transgenic bacteria, and in 1979 human growth hormone was cloned by the company’s scientists.

Genentech’s first product was chemically synthesized genes for human insulin. It wasn’t long before the company became extremely successful, and its research continued to make a huge impact in the lives of patients. In 1985, the company made available a second drug made with recombinant DNA, human growth hormone. Its research continues to this day, having also spurred the growth of thousands of biotechnology companies along the way and instigating breakthrough treatments for countless diseases. It has also made Herb Boyer a very rich man. According to ‘Time’ magazine, he was biotech’s first ever multimillionaire.