In April, Herbert Boyer, Ph.D., a towering figure in molecular medicine for almost 50 years, and his wife, Marigrace, received the Peter Parker Medal, the medical school’s highest honor, for their outstanding contributions to the School of Medicine.
The award presentation was an anniversary of sorts, as it has been 20 years since the dedication of the Boyer Center for Molecular Medicine, one of the medical school’s most important research buildings. Boyer, who was a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Medicine from 1963 to 1966, made the construction of that building possible with a $10 million gift, given in gratitude to Yale for helping him start his research career.
“The Boyer Center has been critical to the medical school during the past two decades, and its twentieth year marked the time to honor Herb and Grace Boyer with the Peter Parker Medal,” says Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine.
As a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1960s, Boyer wrote to Edward A. Adelberg, Ph.D., then chair of the Department of Microbiology at the School of Medicine, to ask for bacterial strains he needed for an experiment. Within a week, the strains were in the mail and a scientific collaboration had begun. In 1963 Boyer came to Yale as a postdoc in Adelberg’s lab.
“The fruit of my career,” said Boyer at an award ceremony held in the Medical Historical Library, “dates back to Ed Adelberg and my association with him.”
Boyer’s greatest contribution to medicine came after he met Stanley Cohen, Ph.D., a Stanford professor, at a conference in Hawaii. Boyer had found a way to use enzymes to cut snippets of DNA that maintained their genetic code and could be spliced onto other bits of DNA. Once inserted into circular strands of DNA known as plasmids, which Cohen was studying, Boyer’s snippets could be inserted into bacteria, which could then produce a desired protein in large quantities.
This technology—which Boyer and Cohen used to develop recombinant insulin by inserting human genes into E. coli bacteria—launched the biotech industry, and opened the door to later developments in genetic engineering and gene therapy. With venture capitalist Robert Swanson, they formed Genentech, now a leader in the pharmaceutical industry.
“Herb had the incredible good sense to apply recombinant technology to develop treatments that would make people better, and he was able to create recombinant insulin and recombinant growth hormones,” Alpern said. Boyer broke boundaries not only in science, Alpern noted, founding his company when academic scientists considered alliances with business the equivalent of “embracing the dark side.” Now, Alpern said, it is common practice.
Boyer was also prescient in another way. “Now we all talk about interdisciplinary science,” Alpern said. “Twenty years ago it wasn’t obvious that it was the way to go—the Boyer Center was a collection of faculty from many different departments, all working together on many different problems.”
In his brief remarks, Boyer paid tribute to his mentor, Adelberg, who died in 2009. “Not only was he a fine scientist, but he was a gentleman of the first order,” Boyer said. Under Adelman’s tutelage, Boyer continued, he discovered how he wanted to spend his career. “I appreciate all the things that happened here at Yale.”