The Birth of Biotech

October 24, 2013 – April 20, 2014

National Museum of American History
14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC

1st Floor, Center, History Highlights Case Floor Plan

Lab and factory equipment used to produce recombinant insulin are compared with historic objects used for treating diabetes to reveal the science and industry behind the first major product of the biotech boom of the 1970s and 1980s: recombinant human insulin. Made by genetically modified bacteria, recombinant human insulin provided a steady source of the drug for Americans with diabetes, replacing a less-certain supply of animal-derived insulin.

In the early 1970s, a research team led by Herbert Boyer of the University of California at San Francisco and Stanley Cohen of Stanford University successfully transferred a gene from one species into another, a technique known as recombinant DNA. Robert Swanson, a young venture capitalist, was excited by the possibilities of applying recombinant DNA technology to industry. He convinced Boyer to join him in forming a new company—Genentech, “genetic engineering technology.” The start-up business partnered with Eli Lilly, a well-established pharmaceutical firm, to develop the first recombinant drug, human insulin.