The history of biotechnology

With a willingness to work with scientists, Cambridge was an early player in biotechnology

Scientists began cutting and pasting bits of DNA together in the 1970s, in research that rapidly gave rise to a new era in biology in which genes could be spliced into the DNA of bacteria and other organisms.

Many of the early breakthroughs and the first true biotechnology company, Genentech Inc. started on the West Coast. But Cambridge rapidly became a hub for the new industry, benefiting from the brainpower at nearby universities and from debate over the new kind of research.

The Cambridge City Council held a series of hearings in the summer of 1976, eventually passing the country’s first legislation regulating biotechnology companies.

‘‘The City Council was mystified. It had never been faced with having to deal with science at Harvard and MIT in City Council hearings, and there were prominent scientists on both sides’’ of the issue, said Sheldon Krimsky, who sat on the nine-member citizens’ committee that advised the council.

Today, Cambridge’s early efforts to grapple with biotechnology are considered a key factor in attracting so many companies to Kendall Square, and Massachusetts is home to more than 300 biotech firms, trailing only California.


1953 James Watson and Francis Crick, using crucial evidence gathered by Rosalind Franklin, discover the double-helix structure of DNA.

1973 California biochemists Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer create the first recombinant DNA organism, work that forms the basis for modern biotechnology.

1975 Scientists gathered at the Asilomar Conference recommend the National Institutes of Health provide guidelines for recombinant DNA research.

1976-77 The Cambridge City Council holds hearings on the safety of recombinant DNA research and passes the country’s first ordinance regulating the work.

1978 Harvard University professor Walter Gilbert, MIT professor Phillip Sharp, and others found the biotechnology company Biogen (now Biogen Idec Inc.).

1980 The US Supreme Court rules in Diamond v. Chakrabarty that genetically engineered microorganisms can be patented.

1980 The Bayh-Dole Act allows universities to hold patents on federally funded research.

1981 Genzyme Corp. sets up shop on the 17th floor of a building in Chinatown.

1982 The Food and Drug Administration approves the first biotechnology therapy, a human insulin drug made by Genentech.

1982 Whitehead Institute is founded in Cambridge. It becomes a leading research center, and provided about one-third of the human genome sequence in 2000.

1983 Council for Responsible Genetics is founded in Cambridge.

1985 Massachusetts Biotechnology Council is founded.

1988 The ‘‘Harvard mouse,’’ a genetically altered mouse susceptible to breast cancer, becomes the first patented animal.

1991 Genzyme’s Ceredase is approved to treat Gaucher’s disease; the recombinant DNA version of the drug was approved three years later and last year posted $1 billion in sales.

1994 FDA approves the first genetically engineered food, the Flavr Savr tomato. The product never makes it to market.

1996 FDA approves Biogen’s Avonex, a recombinant interferon drug used to treat multiple sclerosis that is now a ‘‘blockbuster,’’ with more than $1 billion in sales each year.

1996 Dolly the sheep is cloned.

1998 Human embryonic stem cell lines are established.

2000 ‘‘Working draft’’ of the human genome’s 3.15 billion letters is completed after a decade of research.

2003 Broad Institute is founded in Cambridge to give scientists access to the human genome project, and to understand the molecular basis of disease.

2007 Craig C. Mello, a University of Massachusetts researcher, shares the Nobel Prize with Andrew Fire of Stanford University for discovering a special kind of RNA that can shut down individual genes.