BioWorld Today Columnist
Here we are in the summer doldrums, with visions of massive industry layoffs driven by clinical calamities dancing in our heads. It seemed a good opportunity to think back to a more innocent time, when even the craziest ideas were fundable . . . well, not always.
Some of our favorites - and thanks to the readers who shared their memories!
• The year was 1981, and Martin Apple was enthusiastically entertaining a New York Times reporter at the International Plant Research Institute, affectionately known to biotech history buffs as IPRI. Apple found himself in the uncomfortable position of explaining to his parents just how an observant Jew ended up on the cover of the NYT Magazine saying, "We are going to make pork chops grow on trees!"
While pork chop trees were never spotted on the site, IPRI did sport vats of vanilla bean cells churning out vanillin (a favorite spot for visiting reporters), date palm clones and true potato seed.
IPRI also pulled off the amazing feat of being the first biotech company reborn via bankruptcy coupled with an IPO when Bio-Rad bought the assets of the encumbered firm and moved them into Escagenetics.
• Who in the San Francisco Bay area can ever forget Bio-Response and its cows? The scientific founders believed that they could generate more robust hybridoma and genetically engineered cell lines, and thus more cost-effective monoclonal antibodies (MAb) and other proteins, by growing the cells in something Nature designed for lymphoid cells: lymph.
And where can you get lots of lymph with a known provenance and reproducible lots? From cows! More precisely, by cannulating the thoracic duct of a bunch of cows standing in a stainless steel room, and running the lymph through tubing that goes through a hole in the wall into a series of incubators. In one of those incubators are hollow-fiber cell systems that bathe the hybridoma cells with all the nutrients they want. The MAb-containing supernatant flows through more tubing into a cold room, where protein separation begins.
That would never fly in today's PETA world, but I saw those cows with my own eyes. This company lasted long enough to raise big bucks, and eventually was acquired by Baxter. One of my colleagues remembers reading somewhere that the hard part was figuring out how to get the full-grown cows off the upper floor - seems they were brought up there as calves.
• More monoclonal fun: Who remembers which biotech firm did a deal in the late 1980s with Pirelli to put MAbs on their tires to prevent rubber oxidation? Whose idea was it to genetically engineer staple root crops for tropical Third World nations with genes encoding contraceptive MAbs?
• The latest "All My Clones" episode was based on a real business plan to engineer rabbits that breed faster - one of those great market opportunities that come along once in a lifetime. For those of you paying attention, the Wall Street Journal came out with a story very recently about someone using rabbit to make cat food, so maybe there is a market.
• Glow-in-the-dark products are always fun. The first reference appeared in an early 1990s episode of "All My Clones" - dogs genetically engineered to express luciferase for joggers who like to run at night and to make them easy to find after an earthquake. You get bonus points if you remember why this scheme went wrong.
Other great glowing biz plans were for the fluorescent fish for pets (GloFish, banned in Australia, Canada and Europe!) and one for Christmas trees that light up under black lights (sort of a Jim Morrison poster effect).
• Ever feel like you just can't get enough of someone? Eiwa Industry Co. of Japan started out selling pendants containing the DNA of beloved pets who had gone to the big farm in the sky. They were inundated with requests for jewelry containing human DNA, and plunged into this expanding market. They have a snazzy set of boyfriend/girlfriend pendants with little faces and a smidgen of your sweetie's DNA enclosed.
But Eiwa was just following in the footsteps of Stargene, the California-based company that started selling DNA-encapsulating gizmos back in 1991. Kerry Mullis, the wildly eccentric scientist who is credited with inventing PCR gene amplification technology, decided that embedding DNA of superstars was a great way to make big bucks from his contribution to biotech.
The original jewelry idea was deemed too expensive to manufacture, so they turned to trading cards. In a 1993 Discover magazine article, Mullis described a card made of the same stiff plastic as credit cards. One side would show the star's picture and a bit of DNA, the flip side would have info on the person and the nucleotide sequence carried by their genetic material. The prototype card, featuring Albert Einstein, was being used to attract investors.
Anyone with information on what happened with StarGene Inc., please email me!
• My personal favorite biotech wild ideas were projects generated within our two top biotech firms. Long before Amgen got rich on EPO, it was chasing after chicken growth hormone - after all, there are a lot more chickens than people! Amgen also was the source of the ever-popular (at least with me) rDNA indigo dye production for blue jeans (or is that blue genes?).
Genentech's two great contributions to this column were the early 1980s recombinant rubber project (cut out the need for tropical plantations) and spider silk (we could replace Kevlar and take over the Paris couture market). I am not sure what happened to the rubber program. The spider silk project faltered around the time I left Genentech labs (1984) when they couldn't figure out how to recreate the spider's spinnerette. They made lots of silk protein but couldn't convert it into thread.
• One of our readers suggested getting Orchid Biocomputer to sponsor a genetically engineered orchid project. Project sponsors could order plants that would spell out their company name on the petals.
• And finally, another reader would like to put forward all those companies that actually got financed to "focus on unmet medical needs." What a novel idea!
Have a great summer, and I'll see you in September.
Robbins-Roth, PhD, founding partner of BioVenture Consultants, can be reached at email@example.com. Her opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BioWorld Today.