Genetics pioneer opens science pavilion at St. Vincent College

| Saturday, June 15, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Herbert Boyer recalled on Friday, when he was a junior at St. Vincent College near Latrobe and had to present a lecture on a chapter from a textbook to seven fellow students.

His topic involved the structure of DNA.

“I read it and thought this was very interesting,” Boyer remembered. “So I presented that chapter to the class, and I was hooked. It was so beautiful.”

Boyer, a Derry native, was so entranced back in 1957 that he went on to become an international leader in genetics and biotechnology. He won the Albert Lasker Award in 1980, was presented the National Medal of Science by former President George H.W. Bush in 1990 and received numerous other honors. He co-founded Genentech Inc. a San Francisco-based giant in biotechnology.

On Friday, he served as the main speaker during the dedication of the Sis and Herman Dupre Science Pavilion, the $39 million home of the Herbert W. Boyer School of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Computing at St. Vincent, where Boyer earned his bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry.

He spoke on the topic “50 years from now,” and he offered a preview of his talk during a one-on-one session with the media beforehand.

Boyer, who holds a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh, expressed doubt that all forms of cancer will be cured in the next 50 years, but expects medicine to continue to lengthen the lives of survivors.

“I think cancer is a Darwinian experiment,” he said. “The cell wants to grow and divide, and once it finds a way to grow out of control, it recruits other cells and proliferates and any way you try to kill it — radiation, chemical, other treatments — it becomes resistant. So it's an unending battle.

“Personally, I don't think there will be a universal cure,” he added. “You can cure cancer if you can isolate the primary cancer before it metastasizes. The tumor itself doesn't kill you; it's the metastasis … when it goes to some other point of your body and keeps growing.”

In the 1950s, only about 5 percent of cancer patients survived more than five years, he explained. Today, that percentage is greater than 50 percent, and the percentage should continue to increase with time, he said.

Scientists and doctors use genetics to better understand each cancer and how to treat each individual type, increasing life spans, Boyer added.

Educational programs promoting better understanding of cancer causes — such as the effects of smoking and environmental risks — will help increase lifespans, too, Boyer said.

He said longevity has increased with each generation since the 1900s, but expressed concerns that the “obesity epidemic” could change that over the next 50 years.

He called James Watson and Francis Crick's discovery of DNA in 1953 a pivotal moment in biological history.

“That triggered the explosion in the biomedical science … and changed our world, like the computer,” Boyer said.

Boyer said he returns to Western Pennsylvania periodically.

‘I come back here almost every year, once or twice, to visit,” he said. “I love this part of the country. I enjoy the greenness. I live in California, where it's often brown, so it's nice to come back to St. Vincent.”

He called his days at St. Vincent a right first step for him, a boy from a “modest family'' who grew up in a small town and who then possessed a limited understanding of the world.

“I think coming to St. Vincent was just perfect for me,” Boyer said. “I don't think I could have competed in a larger environment. I just didn't have the background.

“This is a place where you come, hang your hat and make your way,” he added.

Bob Stiles is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6622 or

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