Biotech Thrives in Cambridge

Just as the computer chip brought about a computer revolution and the creation of an entire region devoted to its research and promotion--Silicon Valley--novel research in genetics has established Cambridge as a type of genetic playground.

But many consider the less than 30-year old biotechnology industry to be still in its nascent stages. The recent advent of countless new technologies such as bioinformatics, structure-based drug design, combinatorial chemistry and high throughput screening has resulted in cutting-edge technologies and novel biomedical products that are being introduced into the market.

In the Beginning

The biotechnology industry came into being in the late 1970s, when the first genetically engineered biological products were created. In 1977, the California-based Genentech, Inc. reported the production of the first human protein made by a bacterium, and the potential for rapid development and novel discoveries in biotechnology became real.

Many scientists and biotechnology company executives say that recombinant DNA technology was one of the most important catalysts for the creation and growth of new companies in the industry.

"Recombinant DNA technology provided the basis for many of the early biotech discoveries that were made," says Stephen Push, vicepresident for corporate communications at Genzyme Corporation.


Genzyme, a Cambridge biotechnology company which is currently the world's fourth largest, was formed in 1981 as an enzyme manufacturing company, Push says. The key breakthrough for Genzyme was the discovery of an enzyme called GCR, which was used to treat a rare disorder, Gaucher disease.

"We were the only company making the enzyme, and the enzyme has been used to treat patients since 1991," Push says.

Another factor that promoted the growth of biotechnology in the U.S. was the scientific research support provided by the government, Push says.

"The single most important fact why the U.S. has been so dominant in biotechnology is the strong government support for basic scientific research, which allows companies to develop new products," he says.

Push adds that the biotechnology industry lags significantly in countries such as Japan, where government support for science and technology research is not as prevalent.

Location, Location, Location

Many of the oldest biotechnology companies were founded around the same time in academic and biomedical research hotspots like Cambridge and Palo Alto.

Their proximity to universities such as Harvard and MIT provided the young companies with the intellectual capital they needed to succeed.

For instance, Biogen, currently the world's sixth largest biotechnology company, was founded by a group of scientists that included Loeb University Professor and Nobel laureate Walter Gilbert and Nobel laureate and MIT Professor Phillip Sharp.

"Wally Gilbert and myself interacted with about six European scientists 20 years ago to talk about starting a biotechnology company...with the objective to translate this new science of recombinant DNA and genetic engineering into things that were useful to society," Sharp explains.