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Gene Jockeys

Life Science and the Rise of Biotech Enterprise

Nicolas Rasmussen

Publication Year: 2014

The biotech arena emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, when molecular biology, one of the fastest-moving areas of basic science in the twentieth century, met the business world. Gene Jockeys is a detailed study of the biotech projects that led to five of the first ten recombinant DNA drugs to be approved for medical use in the United States: human insulin, human growth hormone, alpha interferon, erythropoietin, and tissue plasminogen activator. Drawing on corporate documents obtained from patent litigation, as well as interviews with the ambitious biologists who called themselves gene jockeys, historian Nicolas Rasmussen chronicles the remarkable, and often secretive, work of venture capitalists, stock market investors, and scientist-entrepreneurs who built a new domain between academia and the drug industry in the pursuit of intellectual rewards and big payouts. In contrast to some who critique the rise of biotechnology, Rasmussen contends that biotech was not a swindle, even if the public did pay a very high price for the development of what began as public scientific resources. Within the biotech enterprise, the work of corporate scientists went well beyond what biologists had already accomplished within universities, and it accelerated the medical use of the new drugs by several years. In his technically detailed but approachable narrative, Rasmussen focuses on the visible and often heavy hands that construct and maintain the markets in public goods like science. He looks closely at how science follows money, and vice versa, as researchers respond to the pressures and potential rewards of commercially viable innovations. In biotechnology, many of those who engaged in crafting markets for genetically engineered drugs were biologists themselves who were in fact trying to do science. This book captures that heady, fleeting moment when a biologist could expect to do great science through the private sector and be rewarded with both wealth and scientific acclaim.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

More than any other book I can imagine, this is the work of a lifetime in that I am drawing upon experiences since my teenage years, all specifically related to this work. I therefore owe debts to an unusually long series of people for enabling it. These include the biologists who took me into their laboratories and trained...

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Introduction: Biology’s Day at the Races

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pp. 1-8

“ Gene jockeys”—as I learned as a biology graduate student at Stanford during the 1980s—were biologists working in the biotechnology firms that hired so many of my fellows at the time. Soon after, the term became the name of a lab computer program that found the correct position of DNA sequences. At a superficial...

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1. Biology, Industry, and the Cold War

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pp. 9-39

The ecstatic man steps from his wheelchair, no longer wracked with disease and smiling against the backdrop of a mushroom cloud. A grateful woman sobs with relief when her doctor, pronouncing her cancer diagnosis, also hands her a radioactive bracelet—the painless cure cheaper than a restaurant dinner thanks...

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2. The Insulin Trophy

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pp. 40-71

The first pharmaceutical that molecular biologists made was human insulin. It was always going to be insulin. From the perspective of life scientists in the middle 1970s, it is hard to imagine any other drug coming sooner into the medical marketplace through genetic engineering. This statement is not intended as...

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3. Growing Pains: Commercial Strains on a Way of Life

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pp. 72-100

In the shelves full of books written about the biotechnology industry and its meteoric rise around 1980, tales of heroism abound. Exceptional qualities have been attributed to the biologists who first cloned human proteins to make new drugs possible: foresight and genius, brilliant entrepreneurial creativity, dedication...

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4. The Interferon Derby: Markets in Credit, Tournaments of Value

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pp. 101-130

Insulin may have been the most famous protein in 1978, when Genentech claimed the laurels in the race to clone it, but the one most on the public’s lips that year was interferon. Discovered 20 years earlier as a mysterious hormone-like substance released by animal cells when attacked by viruses, interferon had...

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5. Epo: The Making of the Biotech Blockbuster

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pp. 131-159

Throughout this book we have explored the active roles university biologists played, during the early days of biotech, in shaping a wider social environment favorable to commercial molecular genetics. In the last chapter we saw how they helped create an overheated investment market for shares in the small biotech...

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6. tPA: The End of the Beginning

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pp. 160-182

Since the retreat of infectious diseases in the early twentieth century, people in developed countries began living long enough to die of something different— especially cancer and heart disease. In the United States around 1980, about a million people each year suffered a visit from heart disease’s main killer, that...

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Conclusion. Science, Business, and Medicine in the First Age of Biotech

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pp. 183-192

As we have seen, the first age of biotech was fuelled by enormous, often unrealistic enthusiasm in both medical and business worlds, and also in politics. The overheated enterprise not only resulted in some excellent science but brought a number of useful new drugs to market, perhaps a few years quicker than they...

Cited Sources

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pp. 193-194


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pp. 195-240

Glossary of Technical Terms

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pp. 241-244


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pp. 245-249

E-ISBN-13: 9781421413419
E-ISBN-10: 1421413418
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421413402
Print-ISBN-10: 142141340X

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 12 line drawings
Publication Year: 2014