Recently, many people have mixed feelings about a technology that originated from the United States - PCR testing.

As a public account that enjoys writing about the history of technology, today we will discuss the birthplace of this technology: a particularly ill-fated American company.

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The starting point of this company is very high: the founders are almost all medical or biological PhDs, including a Nobel laureate (director of the Berkeley Virus Research Laboratory).

Later, many talented individuals joined or acted as consultants, including the inventor of genetic cloning technology, the inventor of oral contraceptives, and a modern pioneer in the field of genetics technology (another Nobel laureate).

The people hired by these big shots are certainly not ordinary individuals. In a short period, the company gathered hundreds of top PhD graduates from various fields such as biology, medicine, chemistry, mechanical engineering, electronics, and computer science from prestigious universities.

The name of this company is Cetus and it was founded in 1971.

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We often see on television those long rows of pipettes used in biomedical laboratories, called transfer pipettes, which can accurately provide equal amounts of bacteria or culture medium to a bunch of culture tubes.

Cetus would certainly not do anything that lacks challenge. Their first product focuses on researching and developing an automated system using microprocessors to control the movement, vibration, and selection of 180 test tube arrays. This allows for the screening of up to 10,000 strains of bacteria weekly.

At that time, it was the era when antibiotic research and development was relatively hot.

You should know, at that time, PCs had not yet been born, so they invented and put together a set of microcomputers themselves.

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Two consultants of the company invented the real genetic engineering technology, which involves transferring DNA to different species for cultivation. Later, the two co-founded the famous Genentech, which is another legendary story we will not delve into for now.

Cetus saw the impending revolution of gene technology and decided to seize the opportunity to develop gene-based treatments. Beta interferon and Interleukin-2 (IL2), which treats cancer, were the directions chosen by these talented individuals.

The research and development direction was not wrong, as long as the drug is introduced to the market, there will definitely be huge profits. Cetus went public in 1981 to raise funds and took a huge gamble on the future. Cetus gave up its own instrument research business.

Born at the wrong time, the technology of nucleic acid amplification and testing subsequently emerged in the company.

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A little-known researcher, Kary Mullis, working at Cetus, had a stroke of inspiration in 1983 and realized that polymerase chain reaction (PCR) could be used to copy nucleic acids.

Mullis’ colleagues at the company were not willing to help him and the leadership did not see his technology as important to the main business focus of the company, which was producing anti-cancer drugs. In fact, the company almost fired Mullis because he was a bit peculiar; he claimed to have made and consumed psychedelic drugs during his time in school. After graduating, he had written novels and opened a bakery, and later he was convinced by a former classmate to join Cetus.

This guy was really unlucky. He wrote a PCR paper and submitted it to the journal Nature, but it was rejected. He then tried to submit it to Science but was rejected again. After struggling for a while, he finally managed to get it published in a small journal, but it wasn’t until 1987.

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After Mullis presented the relatively mature laboratory PCR technology at a conference in 1986, there was a controversy over the allocation of credit at Cetus. His girlfriend broke up with him and the company decided to let Mullis go with n-2 (5 months) salary.

Due to Cetus’ all-in investment in the IL2 drug (even before its approval), they did not have the funds to develop their own PCR-related technology and equipment. Around the time of New Year’s Day in 1986, Cetus partnered with Kodak and the former photolithography giant Perkins-Elmer to jointly develop instruments and reagents for PCR.

The PCR technique requires the cultivation of a small amount of DNA/RNA replication in vitro to reach billions of times, so the nucleic acid results cannot be obtained immediately. Its technology is also constantly iterated and innovated through generations.

Subsequently in 1987, the PCR patent was cross-licensed by the discerning pharmaceutical giant Roche, as they had a multitude of IL2 patents.

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For ten years they honed their skills, but dedication did not bring good results. In 1990, Cetus went all in with their application for IL2, but it was rejected by the FDA, causing the company to fall into a crisis. Cetus sought support from nearly a hundred organizations but was unsuccessful, leading to the resignation of their CEO the following year.

A few weeks later, Cetus was bought by a company called Chiron, while the patent rights of PCR were bought out by Roche.

Chiron’s gambling quickly became successful, and Cetus’ IL2 was finally approved by the FDA for market release in the second year.

Cetus fell at the finish line.

In 1993, Mullis was awarded the Nobel Prize for PCR.

According to an academic paper published in 2006, PCR technology has generated over 2 billion dollars in patent licensing revenue for Roche.