Keys to successful biotechnology: Good science isn’t enough

By Tom McCutchan | Jan 12, 2012
Courtesy of: Jackson Library

The world-renowned Jackson Laboratories In Bar Harbor, should, by all rights, have failed within its first few years. Although it had the financial backing of some very wealthy individuals, it broke ground shortly before the great stock market crash of 1929. Furthermore, its scientific direction was based on a single idea that had no solid basis in science: that cancers were transmitted from one generation to the next.

Its location, however scenic, isolated its staff from other scientists with common interests. Finally, it did not have a clear plan for sustaining its financial future. Despite this, the “JAX”, as it is popularly known, has become a success beyond all reckoning. How did this happen and what can we learn from it about the successful development of this kind of institution?

Clarence Cook Little and his colleagues established the Jackson Laboratories with the idea that they would find cancer to be a genetically inherited trait. They chose mice as their model for studying mammals. To perform their experiments, they first needed to establish colonies of mice with stable traits that were easily distinguishable, such as brown fur or white fur. Ultimately, they had to create colonies of mice that were genetically identical. It is, by the way, truly amazing that these experiments were designed before anyone even knew that it was DNA that carried genetic information.

Jackson Labs’ early studies on the inheritance of cancer were not rewarding. Ironically, what they were successful in was not their initial goal, but the means by which they intended to achieve that goal: establishing a number of lines of highly inbred mice. Their use of genetically identical mice quickly captured the attention of scientists familiar with their work. Previously, it had been a major problem for research that mice vary just as people do, and most of these differences are genetically based. Without the availability of genetically identical mice, the results of experiments using mice often varied from laboratory to laboratory. Scientific results have always gained or lost credibility on the basis of whether they could be repeated elsewhere.

The JAX soon realized that they could raise money for research by establishing a commercial center and selling their lines of mice to other laboratories. The availability of these genetically identical mice meant that now researchers in different labs would be able to confirm each other’s results. Mice from Jackson Labs have contributed to the winning of 22 Nobel Prizes. Starting a commercial branch to sell their mice, and firmly establishing its reliability among the scientific community, may turn out to the Jackson Labs’ greatest contribution to science.

During the succeeding years, scientists noticed that different inbred lines of mice had different traits that could be followed in genetic crosses. For example, George Snell of Jackson Lab, noticed that certain tissue graphs would be accepted by some inbred lines but rejected by others. Snell’s observation eventually enabled surgeons to dramatically increase the success rate for organ transplants. The same finding also led to a greater understanding of the immune system. Response to infection, how the aging process occurs, and many other biological phenomena were then found to be genetic. These characteristics, which had previously seemed so mysterious, soon became accepted as genetically based traits. This opened and accelerated many areas of research.

The commercial branch at Jackson addressed the scientific needs of their own scientists and visiting scientists. As an example, the Jackson Laboratories initially preserved strains by continually breeding them. This was costly and didn’t ensure the preservation of strains for two reasons: 1) The cost of the space needed was prohibitive; 2) The mice continually acquired new mutations every generation, allowing changes in their genetic background.

Recognizing this potential, future risk, Jackson proceeded to invest time and expense in developing procedures to store large numbers of frozen embryos. In this way, they were able to maintain millions of embryos in a reasonably small space as well as preserve their genetic identity. They were also able to store duplicate samples in different places in the event of a natural disaster. The trust in the Jackson laboratories to address such problems attracted research grants, researchers and a special affiliation with The National Cancer Institute.

The Jackson’s facilities also offered a unique resource for research in a beautiful setting, making it a highly desirable place to work. As further enticement, they have six 2-bedroom cottages, known as the Woodlands Cottages, which are available to Visiting Investigators and Guests from June through September. As a result, groundbreaking research is initiated here and scientists at the Jackson Laboratories are given the opportunity to interact and network with other scientists for an extended period of time every year. These benefits have played a central role in keeping the Jackson up to date with newly breaking research across the country. It has made a geographically isolated laboratory a mecca for scientific research.

The success of Jackson Labs seem to have come from: 1) Close cooperation between a research and a commercial branch; 2) Investment in bringing a mix of top rate scientists through the laboratories for extended working visits; 3) A willingness to address complex problems, even if they don’t produce quick profits.

Can other laboratories in Maine grow, provide jobs for local residents, and help the economy of Maine as the Jackson has done?

































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