Stanely N Cohen & Herbert W Boyer

DNA cloning has revolutionized the biological and life sciences by opening up the pathway to the understanding of the structure and function of genes at the molecular level in both health and disease. These discoveries made possible not only the mapping and sequencing of entire genomes, but also the development of cell systems directed to the production of novel therapeutic substances for the treatment of disease. Methods were developed for the isolation of individual genes by cloning the genes in living cells and then propagating and expressing the genes in biological species other than the original gene host.

In 1973, Stanley N Cohen and Herbert W Boyer, together with their colleagues, published a paper (Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 70: 3240-3244, 1973) that has turned out to be one of the most seminal of all publications in the biological and life sciences. Their discoveries have provided the foundation for much of the contemporary biomedical research, and have led directly to the extraordinary advances made in molecular biology and medicine during the past 30 years. The discovery or invention of DNA cloning by Cohen and Boyer has changed fundamentally the entire approach to biomedical research.

Cohen and Boyer discovered that genes from any biological species can be propagated and cloned in foreign cells by linking them to DNA molecules that possess the capacity to replicate in the intended host. In 1972, Cohen established the foundation for using self-replicating plasmids as carriers for foreign genes. At the same time, Boyer discovered that certain restriction enzymes (EcoRI) cleaved DNA in a unique manner that resulted in projecting complementary single strand ends on all fragments it generated. Cohen and Boyer met at a scientific meeting and designed a method for accomplishing both the joining of DNA fragments from different plasmids, and the propagation and biological functioning of the composite DNA molecules in living cells. Soon afterward, Boyer and Cohen collaborated to show that DNA from animal cells can be propagated in bacteria by linking it to plasmids, and that the cellular machinery that makes messenger RNA can transcribe this foreign DNA. Following the demonstration by Boyer that mammalian proteins can be made in bacteria, Cohen achieved the first successful production of a functional mammalian protein in bacteria. These discoveries demonstrated that prokaryotes could synthesize biologically active gene products ordinarily made by cells of higher organisms and further established the foundation for modern biotechnology.

The impact of these discoveries on the betterment of human kind has been phenomenal. The seminal contributions made by Cohen and Boyer have uncovered the mysteries of genes and enabled the molecular mechanisms by which genes regulate health and disease. Therefore, in turn, such revelations have unraveled the mysteries of life and death, and have enabled the development of novel therapeutic approaches for the diagnosis and treatment of a variety of diseases.

Life Science and Medicine Selection Committee
Shaw Prize

7 September 2004, Hong Kong