In 1977, on the heels of a groundbreaking scientific discovery, Genentech did something that was, at the time, virtually unprecedented within the pharmaceutical industry because of intellectual property concerns: it published its results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. That December, the prestigious journal Science printed “Expression in Escherichia coli of a chemically synthesized gene for the hormone somatostatin.”1 As dry as the headline was, it was game-changing news for the scientific world. Researchers at Genentech had figured out how to synthesize a human protein from a bacterial cell, revolutionizing the way some medicines would be developed ever after.
If we let them publish, they’ll come.
A steady stream of scientific papers in top journals followed over the next several years, as the company’s scientists went on to synthesize human insulin, human growth hormone, and other new bioengineered medicines. From its inception, Genentech co-founder Herb Boyer, a pioneering gene splicer, insisted on publishing their discoveries in academic journals—as a stamp of quality—proving that they were in league with the best academic institutions, and to lure the best and brightest minds in bioscience to the company. As Boyer said, “I know them. If we let them publish, they’ll come.”2
Early on, one scientist who charted the progress of Genentech through the pages of scientific journals was Vishva Dixit, now vice president and staff scientist in Physiological Chemistry. “I’d been following Genentech’s pioneering work since the early 80s,” he says. “They were accomplishing what seemed impossible at the time—they were able to clone and express genes.”
The papers that came from Genentech opened up a new chapter, a new dimension in biomedicine.
It wasn’t the quantity of publications that Genentech produced that impressed Dixit, but the quality. “There are millions of publications every year,” he said. “It’s important to distinguish between publication record and publications that set the field alight. The papers that came from Genentech were revolutionary. They opened up a new chapter, a new dimension in biomedicine.”
Genentech tallied up an impressive number of publications, in the most discerning journals, rivaling top academic institutions. Since it was founded, the company has averaged over 200 publications per year, with the current total more than 9,000. But the real metric of quality in scientific research is not the number of papers published, but how widely they are cited in others. A citation shows that a previous study was important enough to lay the groundwork for scientific inquiries that followed and support the overall advancement of the field. A review by the Institute for Scientific Information found that from 1981 to 1992, while the company was still young, Genentech’s citations per paper surpassed every academic institution except the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Since it was founded, the company has averaged over 200 publications per year, with the current total more than 9,000.
As Boyer predicted, Genentech’s published research did indeed lure top talent. Dixit joined Genentech in 1997 because of the cutting-edge science he discovered in those journals. By any metric, he is one of the most accomplished scientists in his field; he now has more than 290 publications under his belt, many of which are highly cited or “citation classics” (in 1996, he was one of the four most-cited scientists in the world)3. Dixit credits Genentech’s founders with recognizing publishing as the currency that interests scientists most. “No amount of money would persuade the people whose discoveries will go down in the annals of science to leave the academic environment,” Dixit says. “They want to make their mark on history—which you do by publishing.”
Genentech not only participated in academic publishing; it helped change the standards by including more authors on its papers. When the company was founded, most studies carried the names of at most two or three researchers. Genentech credited everyone involved, including post-doctoral fellows. The company typically had more scientists working on a project to begin with, not only because of its collaborative culture, but because as a biotech company, its mission is to accelerate the pace of discovery to develop real-world medicines for patients.
Andy Chan, senior vice president of research biology, is another scientist who decided to join Genentech, in 2001—both because of its rigorous academic reputation and the opportunity to see discoveries go from bench to bedside. “It’s a hybrid between an academic institution and pharmaceutical industry,” he says. “What prompted me to come to Genentech was the focus on translating basic science into insights that impact our understanding of human disease and also serve as the scientific foundation for the development of transformative therapies for patients.”
Today, Genentech can point to dozens of the most influential minds in the history of biotechnology who published the results of their inventive research while at the company. According to Chan, it’s a source of pride for every individual researcher to be able to contribute to the advancement of the field in this way. “We are part of a scientific community,” he says. “And we communicate by sharing our discoveries.”
1 K Itakura, T Hirose, R Crea, AD Riggs, HL Heyneker, F Bolivar and HW Boyer. Expression in Escherichia coli of a chemically synthesized gene for the hormone somatostatin. Science. Dec 1977; Vol. 198, Issue 4321; 1056-1063. DOI: 10.1126/science.412251.
2 Quotes from Robert A. Swanson, "Co-founder, CEO, and Chairman of Genentech, Inc., 1976-1996," Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
3 "Identifying 1996’s Most-Cited Articles and Hottest Authors." The Scientist. April 1997.