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Pioneer in genetic engineering and biotech wins Parker Medal

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2011 - Autumn


In the early 1960s, a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh wrote to Edward A. Adelberg, Ph.D. ’49, chair of the Department of Microbiology at the Yale School of Medicine, to ask for bacterial strains needed for a research project. The strains were in the mail within a week, and a scientific collaboration and friendship had begun.

The student, Herbert W. Boyer, Ph.D., FW ’66, came to Yale in 1963 as a postdoc in Adelberg’s lab. “The whole concept and the fruit of my career,” said Boyer at a ceremony in the Historical Library in April, “date back to Ed Adelberg and my association with him.”

Boyer was back at Yale to receive the Peter Parker Medal, awarded to him and his wife, Grace, for outstanding contributions to the School of Medicine. The award came on the 20th anniversary of the dedication of the Boyer Center for Molecular Medicine, built thanks to a gift from the Boyers in 1990. “We thought the building of the Boyer Center was so critical that it really marked the time to give the Peter Parker Medal,” said Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine.

After completing his postdoc at Yale, Boyer went to the University of California, San Francisco, where he began working with Stanley Cohen, Ph.D., a professor at Stanford. The two found a way to use recombinant DNA to produce proteins with potential medical applications, including insulin and human growth hormone. This technology opened the door to the biotech industry. Boyer formed Genentech in partnership with venture capitalist Robert A. Swanson in 1976.

Alpern noted that Boyer founded the company at a time when alliances with business were frowned upon in academia. Now, Alpern said, such relationships are common practice. And Boyer was also ahead of his time in his embrace of interdisciplinary science, Alpern said, and that set the path to the Boyer Center, which is a “collection of faculty members from many different departments, all working together on many different problems.”

Carolyn W. Slayman, Ph.D., deputy dean for academic and scientific affairs, described Boyer’s days as a postdoc at Yale. “Herb was a ringleader among the postdocs in organizing activities for the graduate students and making science exciting for everybody,” she said.

Boyer paid tribute in his brief remarks to Adelberg, a professor emeritus of human genetics who died in 2009. “Not only was he a fine scientist, but he was a gentleman of the first order,” Boyer said.

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