Biotech’s Best: Meet the Pioneers and Experts Changing the Industry

Impacts of early biotech breakthroughs on medicine of today and tomorrow

Photo of Biotech’s Best: Meet the Pioneers and Experts Changing the Industry

Anyone who has administered or received genetic testing has experienced the benefits of their work. Marvin Caruthers and Leroy “Lee” Hood are giants in the world of biotechnology, credited with DNA synthesis as well as bridging biology and engineering. Both were awarded a National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest honor in science, for their work.

The two have inspired researchers like Andrea Armani, the Ray Irani chairwoman of Engineering and Materials Science at USC, who is developing new ways of detecting and understanding how cancer progresses.

On March 21, Caruthers, Hood, and Armani will discuss what propelled their groundbreaking research and their hopes for the future of the industry at, “An Evening with Biotech’s Best,” at The University of Southern California.

Dr. Andrea Belz, vice dean for Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship at USC, will lead the panel discussion.

“We’ll be talking about both the paths that our innovators took, and what they envision in terms of the next ten years of biotech innovation,” Belz said. “Everyone is interested in what they can’t look up on Wikipedia to understand how innovators think.”

Marvin Caruthers receiving the 2006 National Medal of Science

Dr. Caruthers’ work earned him a spot in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He is best known for the chemical synthesis of DNA and RNA, which later allowed for the development of “gene machines” that produce synthetic DNA used in many areas of research. Previously developed chemistries required months to synthesize a piece of DNA, Caruthers chemistry could do the same in a matter of hours.

“It is rather refreshing to know that you contributed one of the absolutely key technologies that have driven the biotech area … and therefore started who knows how many hundreds of companies and how many different research projects throughout the world,” Caruthers said.

Dr. Hood was dubbed a “biotech superstar” by the New York Times. Involved in seven scientific paradigm shifts, he’s tackled biology and disease through a systems approach used in engineering. He helped establish the human genome project, made possible through his work on the automated DNA sequencer. He also founded the Institute for Systems Biology, the first systems-driven institute in the world.

Dr. Leroy Hood

“These technologies, they’ve changed the world. They’ve changed medicine, and they made a lot of money for the companies that developed them,” Hood said.

Dr. Armani noted Caruthers and Hood had inspired many researchers “to continue this kind of interdisciplinary research.”

“The foundation of biotech was really laid by the work of Hood and Caruthers,” said Armani. “They really set the initial vision for the idea of creating technology and merging that with biology to enable discovery.”

Armani is at the forefront of improving the current approach to treating cancer through innovative diagnostic instruments.

Dr. Andrea Armani in her lab at USC

“If they are [sucessful] they will actually enable oncologist to understand cancer from a much more global perspective than is possible now and also to perform diagnostics in the operating room,” Armani said. “They’ll get information during surgery, which isn’t possible now.”

“As you begin to understand the disease then you can start developing better therapeutics to then go after a cure or at least better treatments,” she added.

Many patients have already benefited from the discoveries of Caruthers and Hood. They were both involved in establishing the biopharmaceutical company Amgen.

One of their first projects tackled chronic anemia. They worked to isolate the gene for the hormone erythropoietin, expressed the gene and began a clinical trial in Seattle.

“Here we had patients that were bedridden, who couldn’t produce their own red blood cells,” Caruthers said. “Within a month of starting to administer that material to these patients their erythrocytes (red blood cells) were up to normal. They were out hiking. They were out walking around; some had gone back to work.”

For Caruthers, that experience made it all worth it.

“That was one of the most exciting events of my career, to be able to actually move forward with the science that we had developed to help real patients to recover their livelihoods and quality of life,” he said.

Being able to reverse disease is what drives Hood.

“My passion is using systems approaches to think about disease and about health care,” he said. “The focus of 21st-century medicine is going to be (about) understanding wellness (and) understanding disease — and most important — understanding the transitions from wellness to disease.”

With experience launching various successful projects, Armani said she hopes Caruthers and Hood could offer insight on transitioning years of research to the real world.

“At what point did they realize their discoveries were ready to be translated out of the lab into market?” she said. “How did they make that judgment call? Who influenced them in making that judgment call? It is a really challenging decision to make.”

Caruthers and Hood also hope to inspire undergraduate and graduate students to become the next generation of groundbreaking researchers.

“There’s a lot of breakthroughs out there that still have to be done,” Caruthers said. “Their generation is the generation to push some of those frontiers forward, so go to it.”

Belz noted Caruthers and Hood have valuable experience “fighting naysayer and exploring what people said was impossible.”

“It will be interesting to hear how the transformative thinkers describe their path and particularly the points where people said that it would be too difficult to do or not feasible or not relevant, there would be no market for it,” Belz said. “In today’s culture, there is an image where innovation is really about a foosball table and free M&Ms, and the reality is that for transformations it is a much longer path.”


Caruthers said students should realize innovation is a slow process, where “you have to learn a lot before you can actually move forward.”

Hood wants students to take advantage of how rapidly science and technology are changing.

“The key for the future is going to be, to be something for a 10-year period or so and then change fields, start all over, get insecure,” Hood said. “Have another learning period where you come to think deeply about something very different from what you initially did. This idea of going on to new fields as you mature as a scientist is really an important point in maintaining people’s enthusiasm and passion for what they do.”

Belz hopes the panel will be a “peek behind the scenes” to learn how innovators think.

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