Women’s History Month: 10 Women Biopharma Pioneers

two female researchers working at lab bench

March is women’s History Month, with March 8 designated as International Women’s Day. Let’s take a look at 10 pioneers, some still alive, and some who are no longer with us, who are pioneers in the field of biotechnology.

Brigitte Askonas (1923 – 2013). Among immunologists she was known as “Ita,” and is otherwise remembered as The “Grand Dame” of Immunology. Born in Vienna in 1923 to Czech parents, she was educated at McGill University in Montreal and received her PhD in biochemistry at the University of Cambridge in the UK. She held a staff position at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in Mill Hill, London, where she studied how milk proteins are made. She co-developed one of the first methods for cloning antibody-forming B-cells in vivo, which were some of the first monoclonal antibodies. She also was foundational in isolating and cloning virus-specific T-cells, which helped create the basis for flu subsets and improved vaccines.

Sally Davies (1949 - ). In March 2011, Davies was appointed Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for England and Chief Medical Advisor to the UK government. She is the first woman to be appointed CMO for England. From 2014 to 2016, Davies was a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) Executive Board. In 2013, she was named the sixth most powerful woman in the UK by BBC radio program, Woman’s Hour. In 2016, she established the National Institute for Health Research, and leads may efforts to combat antimicrobial resistance globally. She received her medical degree at Manchester University.

Margaret Dayhoff (1925 – 1983). Dayhoff was a physical chemist and pioneer in bioinformatics. She graduated from New York University in 1945 with a Bachelor of Arts and later earned a PhD in quantum chemistry at Columbia University. She worked as a research assistant at the Rockefeller Institute from 1948 to 1951 and was associate director of the National Biomedical Research Foundation in Washington, DC, from 1960-1981. One of her key achievements was establishing a major computer database of protein structures in addition to being the author of the Atlas of Protein Sequence and Structure. She is often referred to as the founder of bioinformatics.

Jennifer Doudna (1964 - ). Doudna is the Li Ka Shing Chancellor Chair Professor in the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is prominent for her work with Emmanuelle Charpentier that led to the discovery or invention of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing. Along with Charpentier in 2015, Doudna received the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, as well as numerous other awards. She also co-founded Editas Medicine and Caribou Biosciences. Doudna’s research interests are ribozymes and RNA machines, with the three major areas of research in her laboratory focused on catalytic RNA, the function of RNA in the signal recognition particle and the mechanism of RNA-mediated internal initiation of protein synthesis. Doudna received her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at Pomona College and her medical degree from Harvard University.

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Emmanuelle Charpentier (1968 - ). Charpentier, along with Jennifer Doudna, is best known for being one of the discoverers of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing. Charpentier is a Director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, Germany. In 2018, she founded an independent research institute, the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens. Charpentier studied biology, microbiology, biochemistry and genetics at the University Pierre and Marie Curie (UPMC) in Paris. She was a graduate student at Institut Pasteur. She received her post-doctoral training at Institut Pasteur and at The Rockefeller University, New York. She then took on research positions at New York University Medical Center, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine. Charpentier received the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences with Doudna, as well as numerous other awards.

Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958). Franklin was a chemist whose x-ray diffraction studies were the foundation for Watson and Crick’s model on the 3D model of the DNA molecule. She began her college career in 1938 at Newnham College, one of two women’s colleges at Cambridge University, majoring in physical chemistry. She received her BA in 1941, received a research scholarship and a research grant from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. With World War II in progress, she chose to work with the British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA), part of a PhD-oriented research job related to wartime needs. She spent four years working on the micro-structures of coals and carbons, eventually receiving her PhD from Cambridge based on her work with BCURA. After the war, she worked at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimique de l’Etat in Paris on x-ray crystallography. She later moved to the UK for a three-year Turner and Newall Fellowship at King’s College London, where she originally planned to build up the crystallography section and analyze proteins but was asked to investigate DNA instead.

Beverly Griffin (1930 - 2016). Griffin held two doctorates in chemistry and is best known for her work on the molecular biology of two viruses that cause cancer, polyomavirus and Epstein Barr Virus (EBV). Griffin Received her bachelor’s degree from Baylor University, then received a master’s and PhD at the University of Virginia. After that, she won a Marshall Scholarship from the British Government to study in England, where she worked in the laboratory of Alexander Todd at Cambridge University. Griffin completed her second doctorate under Todd in 1958, conducting research on nucleic acid chemistry. After three years at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, sure a fellow of Girton College and senior research associate in the Department of Chemistry at Cambridge, then moved to the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, where she focused on sequencing nucleic acids. She ended her career at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) Laboratories in London, and professor of virology at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School (PMS) at Hammersmith Hospital.

Esther Lederberg (1922 - 2006). Lederberg was a pioneer in bacterial genetics, noted for the lambda phage, a virus that attacks viruses and is used in studying gene regulation and genetic recombination. She also invented replica plating technique used to isolate and analyze bacterial mutants and track antibiotic resistance. She was the Professor Emeritus of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University. She received an AB at Hunter College in New York City in 1942, moved to Stanford and received her master’s in genetics in 1946. She spent a summer studying microbiology at Hopkins Marine Station and then to the University of Wisconsin for a doctorate.

Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909 – 2012). In 1986, Levi-Montalcini won the Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine with Stanley Cohen for discovery nerve growth factor (NGF). It was awarded for her discovery in 1952 that tumor from mice transplanted into chick embryos caused potent growth of the chick’s nervous system. The NGF was purified and its protein structure was published in 1971. NGF, she later proved, played a significant role in the immune system. She was also involved in elucidating the importance of the mast cell in humans and identified palmitoylethanolamide as an important cell modulator, which led to its use as a drug for chronic pain and neuroinflammation. Levi-Montalcini, born in Turin, Italy, attended the University of Turin for medical school, graduating in 1936 with a summa cum laude in Medicine and Surgery, then took a three-year specialization in neurology and psychiatry. She spent most of her career at Washington University in St. Louis and in 2002, founded the European Brain Research Institute.

Jane Mertz (1949 - ). Mertz is best known for her discovery of the first enzyme that could easily join DNA from different species together and creating the protocol that was the foundation for the development of the first recombinant DNA cloned in bacteria. Mertz attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), majoring in life sciences and electrical engineering. She then joined the biochemistry department at Stanford University where she received her PhD, having spent much of her research years there working on techniques that would create the foundation for recombination DNA. In January 1975 she joined the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, then in 1975 accepted a post-doctoral fellowship in the UK’s Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, staying until December 1976 before returning to Wisconsin.

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