Genentech: When Science Stumbles into Business

Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech, by Sally Smith Hughes, is an incredibly informative book about the unorthodox creation and ingenuity of the company Genentech, Inc. This book, albeit slow and clunky to read at times, reveals to its readers the minutiaes, controversies, and successes of business, biotechnology, genetics, biology, corporations, patenting, politics, and academia when they are all mixed together. Hughes’ book is aimed at the scientific community, and anyone else who may be interested in science: notably genetics and biotechnology. The single commanding genre of this book would definitely be associated with genetic innovation in the field of biotechnology. Hughes does an adequate job at bringing to light the revolutionary breakthrough and aftermath of recombinant DNA discovery and research in the mid-1970s.

Hughes bases the entire book from the time of inception of recombinant DNA research by Herbert Boyer and Stan Cohen in 1973 to the early 1980s when Genentech, Inc. was able to raise over $38 million in the company’s initial public stock offering, becoming the overnight darling of Wall Street. “Even the staid Wall Street Journal called it ‘one of the most spectacular debuts in memory.’”(Hughes: 158).  Additionally, Hughes places hints throughout the book to inform readers as to the future events that take place for Genentech, Inc., portraying an image of both extreme financial success and problematic legal proceedings. Sally Smith Hughes is a retired academic specialist in the Regional Oral History Office at the University of California, Berkeley. Hughes has conducted close to 150 archival quality oral histories for the Program in Bioscience and Biotechnology Studies. Furthermore, Hughes has been the author of several publications: The Virus: A History of the Concept, Making Dollars out of DNA: The First Major Patent in Biotechnology and the Commercialization of Molecular Biology, and her most recent publication obviously being Genentech: The Beginning of Biotech. All of these credentials serve Sally Smith Hughes as a very credible, knowledgeable, and appropriate author to write this book, portraying an image of being an expert on the topic.

The development and the incorporation of capitalism and industry into the academic field was an important concept for Hughes to explore. In her conclusion, she makes the point to clarify that while academia and business interests have had relations in the past, the “-extent and intensity”( Hughes, 164) of this relationship had never reached this level. It challenged the sanctity of academic research and brought on a whole set of new challenges. “ Academic biologists, who have traditionally defended the purity of their research, can no longer claim to be white coated keepers of the objective truth. Like the institutions they work for, they have clear economic interest to protect” (Hughes, 164)  Perhaps it is for these revelations for which Hughes wrote this book. Through following this evolution of the university-industry relations we can glean an insight to some of the devices talked about earlier in the year from Where Good Ideas Come From. By applying the knowledge we have about the flow of information and the sharing of ideas and how that affects productivity and breakthrough, we can identify fundamental challenges and risks to this new industrial development.

Further, Hughes focuses on the progression of different discoveries made by the scientists of Genentech. Their research included the study of human insulin, the human growth hormone, and somatostatin. The hormones were to be used for medical practices. They were to be genetically engineered, marketed well, and presented to pharmaceutical companies. In addition to the founders Boyer and Cohen, another scientist involved with Genentech was Bob Swanson. Swanson, a goal-oriented individual from Brooklyn, should be credited with possessing most of the drive used to envision a greater future for Genentech. His goal included producing lucrative discoveries which would then, in turn, lead to exclusive patents and sell the company for a good sum.  “High on Swanson’s list of priorities was establishing research agreements with the University of California and City of Hope. The agreements would provide a legal framework in which the contract research could proceed and would also outline the parameters for intellectual property and royalty payments” (Hughes 55) With this idea of intellectual property, it outlines how thoughts and ideas are sold, and how universities can benefit from patents through royalty incomes. Scientists, in particular ones like Swanson, are often in a hurry to receive patents to fund further research. Hughes method of introducing several characters and scientists demonstrates the manpower and brainpower needed to facilitate an intellectual company, such as Genentech.

While most readers may need some interest of previous knowledge to be interested in such a book, it provides those in the research and academic fields of the nuances between this relationship. The audience for a book such as this is clearly composed of those who are thinking of entering, currently part of, or have observed the working of the industrial-economic and academic-biology fields. For this reason I believe that the book is overall foreboding, almost a public service announcement  those of the intricate relationships that make up this bond. While no book is perfect, Hughes definitely achieved her goals in this novel. She achieved this through an academic/research format of her thesis. My biggest critique would have to be the actual writing itself. It could definitely be better written to interact and engage with the readers more. With such a typically “dry” subject, it would be immensely beneficial in communicating her ideas.  Overall, it was a well written book that achieves a goal that is both intellectually important, and serves a civic duty to our community.
Genentech: When Science Stumbles into Business

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