Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Cetus legacy: a Nobel Prize winner biotech company

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a cornerstone technology of modern biomedical science. Essentially, genomic DNA and RNA science advances that have been occurring for the past 25 years began with PCR. No other biotech invention so far compares to PCR's impact on science. PCR is so ubiquitous nowadays in both experimental or clinical labs that it is seen as just another "method". 

However, when we talk about methods we rarely think about who invents them or what it takes to invent them.

How many people have heard about Cetus? It is very likely that the vast majority of people using PCR today have no idea about Cetus.

The short book by Paul Rabinow titled "Making PCR" is a really wonderful "live" account of Cetus and the people there who invented PCR. Cetus was a biotech company even before Genentech. Kary Mullis was a Cetus employee when he conceptualized and did initial PCR validation experiments. 

For his role in PCR invention Kary Mullis was awarded Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1993, the first ever Nobel prize awarded to a work done at biotech. 

Curiously, this is how Kary Mullis is described in the book "at almost every scientific retreat [he would propose] a number of wild ideas, some of which were flatly wrong because he wasn't really familiar with some of the most basic aspects of molecular biology. And also because he was abrasive and combative and often times his comments would be counterproductive in meetings where people have to try and work together. Mullis had a grudge against his critics and they had a grudge against him". 

At some point Cetus management seriously considering "firing Mullis outright". It is obvious, today's workplace would reject Kary Mullis-type of personality. 

In the end, Cetus disappeared, Kary Mullis became outcast but PCR stayed and transformed science and medicine.   

David Usharauli   

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