A faculty meeting 13 years ago awakened Marvin H. Caruthersto the commercial potential of a breakthrough invention thatbuilt on discoveries coming out of his laboratory.

The University of Colorado's outside patent licensing agentspoke of the importance of patenting scientific disclosures.Recalling the incident, "I wasn't really thinking commercial,"said Caruthers, who was recently selected to receive this fallthe National Biotechnology Ventures Award.

Nearly 15 years ago his lab in Boulder was laying thegroundwork for the solid-state synthesis of oligonucleotides.This would lead -- faster than Caruthers believed possible -- toautomated gene sequencers, the so-called "gene machines" ofthe biotechnology revolution.

After the meeting, Caruthers remembers passing the licensingagent a preprint of a soon-to-be published journal article.Within days, the draft was returned with a proposed patentapplication attached.

"In less than three weeks we had a patent applicationsubmitted," Caruthers said. "It was the first time that I thoughtthere was something commercial here."

Indeed there was. Gene sequencing and analysis machineswere immense time-savers that enabled researchers to quicklyfollow their leads. They shortened into hours the preparation ofoligonucleotides that just a few years before could consumemonths. The technology made it possible to identify specificgene sequences and opened the door to easier gene mappingand manipulation.

For such a fundamental contribution to the development ofcommercial biotechnology Caruthers is to receive the venturesaward at the annual National Biotechnology Venturesconference in November. Previous recipients are Stanley Cohenand Herbert Boyer, who developed the first practical techniquefor genetic engineering; Cesar Milstein, whose discoveries led tothe development of monoclonal antibody products; and KarryMullis, a developer of polymerase chain reaction (PCR)technology.

Both Caruthers and the university, where he chairs thechemistry and biochemistry department, have profitedhandsomely from his lab's discoveries. The university haslicensed the rights to patents and Caruthers, who had beenworking on nucleic acid synthesis for nearly two decades,quickly found a commercial outlet for his talents.

In 1980, he was among the dozen founders of Amgen Inc.When Amgen passed up the opportunity to develop genesequencing equipment in favor of focusing on the developmentof human pharmaceuticals, Caruthers' work was a buildingblock in a new company, Applied Biosystems Inc. of Foster City,Calif.

Caruthers still serves on Amgen's scientific advisory board andis a consultant to ABI. He is also on the board of directors ofAccess Pharmaceuticals, Skandigen AB and Biostar.

He also stays close to lab in Boulder, which claims as alumniDavid V. Goeddel, Genentech Inc.'s former vice president ofresearch, and Mark D. Matteucci, director of novel chemistry atGilead Sciences.

Caruthers views with keen interest developments in genetherapy and drug design. "We're working in area thatcomplement that," he said. "We still have a lot of things we candevelop."

-- Ray Potter Senior Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.