Kary Mullis, a chemist whose work with a pioneering Emeryville Biotech company awarded him a Nobel Prize, passed away last Wednesday at the age of 74.
Mullis is credited with the groundbreaking invention of PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) that is a foundational technique in biochemistry and molecular biology.
“He was personally and professionally one of the more iconic personalities science has ever witnessed,” noted Wareham Development founder & CEO Rich Robbins. Robbins and Wareham have overseen and helped nurture the Biotech industry as one of the primary developers and landlords of what is sometimes dubbed “The East Bay Biotech Corridor” that spans the cities of Emeryville, Berkeley and Richmond.
Mullis received his doctorate in biochemistry from UC Berkeley in 1973. After completing postdoctoral fellowships at the KU Medical Center and UCSF, he briefly left science to become a fiction writer and even managed a bakery.
He began working for Cetus Corporation in 1979. It was with Cetus that Mullis conceptualized and developed this scientific breakthrough that made it possible to replicate thousands to millions of copies of a specific DNA segment. The technique also enabled the eventual mapping of the human genome.
“I was playing,” Mullis reflected in a 1993 Post and Courier story. “I think really good science doesn’t come from hard work. The striking advances come from people on the fringes, being playful.”
Mullis was paid $10,000 for the discovery by Cetus who later sold the patent to Roche for $300 million.
He left Cetus in 1986 and dropped out of science full-time earning a living from lecturing and consulting for companies like Abbot Labs and Kodak.
Cetus merged with Chiron in 1991 who in turn merged with Novartis in 2005. His accomplishment is recognized today with a plaque on 53rd street.
PCR has been widely used in DNA research, forensics, and genetic disease diagnostics. It is used prominently to gather DNA evidence in crime scenes and inspired the premise of cloning dinosaurs from fossilized DNA in the “Jurassic Park” movie franchise.
Perhaps the most bizarre venture Mullis was involved in was a company called “StarGene” that sold artificial gemstones with the DNA of celebrities like Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein.
Mullis was well known as an eccentric character with The Washington Post declaring him “perhaps the weirdest human ever to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.”
Mullis also developed a reputation throughout his career for being a bit of a loose cannon. “These were wild west times at Cetus,” reflected Daniel Nourse who worked with Mullis at Cetus from 1981-86. “Legend (urban or otherwise) has it that Kary got into a fist fight with a fellow scientist over the affections of a female scientist.”
He credited his use of the hallucinogenic LSD with helping him conceptualize his discovery. He also believed in astrology, challenged some of the science behind global warming and claimed to have had an interaction with a glowing raccoon that “might have been an alien”. Mullis penned an autobiography of his life in 1998 titled “Dancing Naked in the Mind Field.”
He is featured in the above TED Talk discussing his personal journey as a young scientist in search of knowledge titled “Sons of Sputnik.”
“There are so many people that have had their life changed by PCR for the good of crime victims and the reversal of innocent people convicted of crimes,” added Nourse. “All from a unique scientist who had the capacity to let his mind wander without restriction.”
A lifelong surfer, he spent the last 11 years of his life in Newport Beach where is passed. He is survived by his wife, three children and two grandchildren.
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Very cool, thanks for the illuminating article!
He was a truly wonderful individual. He brought a smile to everyone who knew him and with PCR changed the world in a huge positive way.
I met Kary Mullis by chance in La Jolla, two years before he was awarded the Nobel in chemistry. Over lunch, Kary regaled us regarding his disappointment in Cetus, Corp., where he’d introduced his discovery with little or no amazement from the corporate hierarchy beyond that received from the company’s patent attorney, who immediately understood the implications of Dr Mullis’ discovery. The CEO of Cetus was a venture capitalist with no apparent training or education in the sciences.
For too much time afterward, Cetus paid little or no attention to their intellectual property goldmine, other than to offer the PCR process to small companies with virtually no possibility of making it a scientific or industrial success story. Kary said the management would have been better off licensing the patent to a few large, interested companies at a 4 % royalty, thereby spending the rest of their lives in comfortable retirement on Maui. But no.
More scientific papers on PCR were published with increasing rapidity. By the time the number of papers reached around a thousand, Cetus’ management synapses finally kicked in. Mullis just might be on to something. Then Cetus was sued by companies demanding licensing rights to PCR that challenged its patent. The company spent $5 million successfully defending its intellectual property in court, thereby conveniently establishing Dr Mullis once and for all as the sole inventor of PCR.
But it was too late. The Cetus CEO had bet the entire company on interleukin-2 (IL-2), which had serious side effects, delaying FDA approval, breaking Cetus. The CEO resigned. At its end, the only financially viable asset Cetus could make available to the bankruptcy court was Kary Mullis’ PCR patent.
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