Genentech and Axel Ulrich

The expertise in this technology, known as recombinant DNA, at the time was growing out of several university laboratories in the San Francisco Bay area.  The primary locations were at UCSF and a small company set up by UCSF Biochemistry graduates called Genentech. Another group was developing the technology at Harvard University, led by Walter Gilbert, but Johnson thought the Harvard group would run into too many regulatory problems.

Johnson, just like his predecessor at Eli Lilly, Clowes, 50 years before, invested Eli Lilly’s money in a university, UCSF.  But, reflecting the changing times, he also made a deal with the small start up company, Genentech.

The expertise in recombinant DNA was located in two different regions of the United States in the mid 1970’s.  One center of expertise was in Cambridge, Massachusetts primarily led by Walter Gilbert, a Professor of Biophysics at Harvard University.  The second was in San Francisco at the University of California, San Francisco.  This west coast center of expertise was in the Department of Biochemistry and consisted of several professors brought together by Herbert Boyer, then the chairman of the department.  A key scientist in the development and application of this new technology was Axel Ulrich.

Axel Ulrich was born in 1943 in central Europe, near the present day intersection of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany.  His parents were living in what is today called the Czech Republic, but at the time had been subsumed into Germany.  His father served in the German Army.  Although Axel Ulrich has no memory of the war, he, along with his mother and brother, was in Dresden in February 1945 when the city was targeted by both the Royal Air Force and the US Army Air Force triggering a firestorm that destroyed the city and killed almost 25,000 people.  His mother took her two sons from there to her hometown in what became Czechoslovakia.  After the war his father was held in a prisoner of war camp administered by the British in Northern Germany.  When he was released the family settled in Rastatt, Germany, a small town on the French border.

Ulrich grew up in Rastatt, then enrolled in the university in Tübingen.  He was set on studying the new field of biochemistry, and Tübingen was the only place in Germany to offer a major in Biochemistry.  From there, he went on to  do his graduate work at the University of Heidelberg in Molecular Genetics, and then finally ended up  at the University of California, San Francisco in the fall of 1975.

By 1976, Axel Ulrich had mastered the new technology of cloning genes.  Genes are pieces of DNA that encode proteins.  Inside of a cell, some genes, which are long stretches of DNA, are transcribed into a similar molecule called messenger RNA, which is a linear molecule just like DNA.  Different cells transcribe a different set of genes.  A cell in the brain will produce one set of messenger RNA, while a heart muscle cell will produce a very different set of messenger RNAs.  This messenger RNA is a temporary construct that carries the information to the complex where proteins are made.  The DNA in a cell contains two copies of all the genes that are used anywhere in the organism.  While the messenger RNA in a cell contains a transcribed copy of only the genes used in that particular cell.