The Biotech Bookshelf: Homework for Gummies Who Want to Dig Deeper

By Anamorph, July 7, 2015

I have found Dr KSS’s essays fascinating to read, and they’ve inspired me to do some ’due diligence’ on the whole field of biotech. As I am an inveterate reader I have sought out books on both general and specific topics in biotech. I am going to start this microblog by reviewing two of them, from the perspective of an interested layman.

I hope that my fellow Gummies with an interest in pursuing biotech deeper will also contribute books, articles, etc. that they have found of interest. I think this page will do best if we keep this content to ’background,’ ie the science, possibly the scientists doing interesting work, but not issues about money, investing, etc, or other things that are ephemeral. Maybe we can expand the topic to medicine and science generally: Mary Roach’s amusingly-titled books on subjects like digestion (’Urp!’) are very enjoyable reads as, in a very different way, are Dr Oliver Sacks’ on neurology.

So to begin at the beginning…

Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech
Sally Smith Hughes

Genentech is the granddaddy of modern biotech firms, started from an unlikely pairing : young would-be CEO Rob Swanson, who had been at Kleiner Perkins before being told his talents would be best used elsewhere, and Herb Boyer, a molecular biologist from humble background (he initially failed entrance to med school) with a powerful urge to prove himself. Launched in the 1970s, the company went on to dizzying heights in the 80s and since, along with some catastrophic falls. There was a great deal of drama on the way: patent fights, attribution fights, FDA sanctions, a midnight raid on a lab to gather research materials. Writer Smith-Hughes had full access to Genentech’s archives (this is an ’official history’) and was able to interview dozens of principals in the company and its competitors. This is a great story, with many colorful characters, including the swashbuckling, sometimes reckless Swanson, yet the telling here is dutiful, not exciting. You certainly get the story: Swanson’s early vision, his courtship of Boyer, their struggles to find alliances with university laboratories, recruitment of other young scientists, their early rivalry with other groups, the famous Asilomar meeting where scientists working with genes came up with a set of ethical guidelines that would preempt restrictive laws, the success with somatostatin, then finally with human insulin. I felt I got the basic facts of the ...

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