Invisible Frontiers

The three competing teams were the Gilbert group at Harvard University, led by the Nobel Prize-winner Walter Gilbert, who later left Harvard for a time to help run Biogen, a Swiss-based biotechnology company; the Rutter-Goodman group, led by two laboratory chiefs at the University of California at San Francisco (USCF), William Rutter and Howard Goodman; and the UCSF-City of Hope National Medical Center group, directed by Arthur Riggs and Keiichi Itakura at City of Hope (near Los Angeles) and by Herb Boyer of UCSF. Both of the California groups developed commercial ties with Eli Lilly, and the biotechnology company Genentech, under Robert Swanson, was tied to the UCSF-City of Hope group. In addition to the formidable bioengineering challenges they faced, each group had to cope with intense personal rivalries growing out of the professional and commercial importance of their research. The Harvard group, moreover, for lack of a proper facility, had to do part of their work in England.

Part 1 of INVISIBLE FRONTIERS describes the events leading up to the Rutter-Goodman group’s publication -- in the June 17, 1977 issue of SCIENCE--of a paper announcing their cloning of a rat insulin gene and listing Axel Ullrich as first author. The accomplishment was, however, marred -- at least in the general public’s mind--by Ullrich’s violation of the National Institutes of Health’s guidelines governing the use of gene-splicing materials. Part 2 tells of the race for the goal uppermost in everyone’s mind since the Eli Lilly symposium--the cloning of the human insulin gene. The prize was won by the UCSF-City of Hope group, which was working with synthetic DNA rather than human genetic material. INVISIBLE FRONTIERS is an engrossing book, based on many interviews and written with great care.