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Reading Recs: Building Biotech

Welcome to Molecular Ideas and thank you for sharing your time with us. Today, we have three great reading recommendations for those interested in learning more about the history of biotechnology, from the innovations of Genentech to Vertex and beyond.


Author's Note: As of this writing, Molecular Ideas posts are not sponsored. I receive no kickbacks from this post or any book sales, though I have read and recommend them.


We live in an age of biotechnology. The last decade or so has been marked by the approval of dozens of new biologic treatments (antibodies, therapeutic proteins, and enzymes) by the FDA each year to address debilitating diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, plaque psoriasis, and cancer. Companies like Mesoblast are developing cellular medicines to treat Graft-Versus-Host-Disease (GVHD). We waited on bated breath for Pfizer, Moderna, and other companies to complete trials of their COVID-19 vaccines last year. Moreover, the rise of gene therapies like Zolgensma® represent a new horizon for treatments where none previously existed in many rare and orphan diseases.


But, how did these innovations arise? Each of these modalities are vastly different from each other, and the aforementioned therapies address a wide range of diseases.


There are two common threads between them. The first is how how they are derived. Biotechnology is direct utilization of biological processes for industrial, medical, and other purposes. Each of these therapies was derived by understanding the structure of these large, complex molecules, and how they interact in the pathogenesis of disease. From there, some of these therapies attempt to replace defective proteins; others inactivate them; others still correct or leverage parallel biological processes to compensate for disease.


The second common thread is when the paradigm of the pharmaceutical industry evolved to encompass therapeutics beyond traditional chemistry. That's what the book recommendations below will be discussing today.


Before we get started - please buy these books from your local bookstores or the ones linked below. They not only offer great shipping and competitive pricing, but bolster your local economy, serve as valuable community centers, and stand as bastions of learning. Personally, I recommend Northshire Bookstore and Parnassus Books. In addition to epitomizing the above, both have impeccable customer service.


If you do not know where to find your local bookstore, just look on IndieBound!


Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech, by Sally Smith Hughes

Buy at Northshire Bookstore | Buy at Parnassus Books


It is easy to look at the innovations we discussed above and assume that they were inevitable with enough time and money. These were two things that Genentech did not have when it was founded in 1976 after a fateful meeting between the life science venture capitalist Robert A. Swanson and the biochemist Dr. Herbert W. Boyer. What the team did have was ingenuity, which Sally Smith Hughes captures brilliantly by interweaving detailed descriptions of scientific innovation and the human discussions around it.


Genentech was founded on the principle that the genes coding for complex, clinically-relevant proteins, could be spliced into bacteria or other cells for mass-production. While that notion is common-place today, the understanding of bacterial genetics and their application to industry became a multi-billion dollar revelation. Further, Genentech leveraged a non-traditional business model in which they would license their cutting-edge molecules to industry players with established distribution networks, which allowed them to hone their competitive advantage of R&D-based operations.


What sets this book apart is the humanized take on history. While the story of Genentech is well chronicled, this book leverages a culmination of interviews that describe how these innovations were developed, the challenges that stood in their way (including the pioneering of industry-academia partnerships), and their impact on industry as a whole. This book is an absolute must-read for those not only interested in history, but how scientific research grapples with commercial and legal interests in a world filled with unmet patient needs.


The Billion-Dollar Molecule, by Barry Werth

Buy at Northshire Bookstore | Buy at Parnassus Books


Do you like David-and-Goliath stories? Check. Do you enjoy reading about the business of science from the ground up? Check. Do you hope that we will one day cure HIV/AIDS? Check.


This book chronicles the journey of a Boston startup called Vertex, which is widely accredited with pioneering 'rational' drug design. This is the process of identifying new medications based on a precise knowledge of a biological target, typically leveraging computer modeling of the drug and target together. How do you see down to the subatomic level and back up to IPO'ing on Wall Street?


This book flawlessly juggles the technically challenging iterations of rational drug design with compelling personal and commercial narratives of the key players in the company.

The cast of bold, passionate, and competitive characters are humanized through the difficult choices that iteration and innovation demand, especially when facing down industry giants and investor milestones. Moreover, it explores how to pivot one's strategy in the face of imperfect information when the stakes - personally and professionally - are high.


Bonus: The Biotech Primer, An Insider's Guide to the Science Driving the BioPharma Industry, by Biotech Primer

Buy at Northshire Bookstore | Buy at Parnassus Books


This book was recommended to me by a colleague, and I was far from disappointed. Whereas the other two books on this list were in-depth case studies into the origins of biotech, this book provides that 30,000-foot view of the underlying science behind the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries in a clear and accessible way. It makes a great reference for those both new and old to the industry, and I highly recommend it as a reference.


What are some of your favorite reads? Any books you'd like me to check out? Sign up to leave a comment below!


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