Timelines: 1987

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Ernesto Bertarelli
Serono goes recombinant

Serono Laboratories begins producing drugs with recombinant DNA technology, which enables the insertion of human genes into bacteria in order to produce unlimited amounts of purified proteins at economical prices. Serono's first recombinant, synthetic somatropin (growth hormone) marketed as Saizen®, is shut out of the U.S. by the Orphan Drug Act, but sells well in Europe.

Serono was founded in 1906 as Instituto Farmalogico Serono S.p.A., in Rome, by Cesare Serono. The company began as a small pharmacy that provided treatments derived from chicken eggs. In 1949, chemist Piero Donini successfully extracted and purified gonadotropin, a hormone that promotes egg and sperm production. The hormone was extracted from the urine of post-menopausal women, including Vatican nuns. Serono collected thousands of liters of urine to produce gonadatropin, which it incorporated into Pergonal®, a fertility-enhancing drug.

In 1965, Fabio Bertarelli became the organization's chief executive, and soon set up a foreign subsidiary, Serono Laboratories Inc., in Boston, to market Pergonal in the United States. Bertarelli purchased a controlling stake of the company in 1974 - a 75% share. After gaining control, Bertarelli moved the company to Geneva, Switzerland.

In 1978 the world’s first test tube baby, Louise Brown, was conceived with help from Pergonal; sales of the drug skyrocketed. In 1995, the company’s second recombinant drug, the intertility treatment Gonal-F, was approved for sale in Europe, and the following year, Ernesto Bertarelli succeeded his father as the head of the company. Serono enjoyed a string of clinical and commercial successes throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2006 the firm was acquired by Merck for $13.3 billion to form Merck Serono.

Ernesto Bertarelli is a competitive sailboat racer. He organized his own yachting syndicate, Team Alinghi, in 2000, to make a bid for the America's Cup in Auckland, New Zealand. Alinghi accomplished the goal in 2003, becoming the first European team to win the Cup, and the first challenger to succeed on a first attempt.

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