The road to COVID-19 testing: The role of a Canadian biotech pioneer

Canadians are updated daily on the multi-faceted devastation caused by SARS-CoV-2 and on the results of COVID-19 testing from across the country. Few people may be aware that these tests are based on a method innovated by the first-ever biotech company, Cetus, co-founded in California by Canadian-born and educated Ron Cape. He was Cetus’s first president in 1971, and then chairman and CEO.

Biotech was nonexistent before this. Cape obtained his Ph.D. at McGill in 1967 with John Spencer as his supervisor, who was one of the pioneers in DNA biochemistry. At the same time, Cape was president of the Professional Pharmaceutical Corporation in Montréal.

The method used globally to test for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is known as the polymerase chain reaction or PCR. This revolutionary innovation was developed at Cetus by in-house scientist Kary Mullis. Awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1993, Mullis received the only Nobel Prize for a discovery made by a biotech company.

DNA technology was the key strategy for Cetus’s business plan when the company was founded by Cape and his partners. In 1983, Kary Mullis discovered a method to exponentially amplify specific sequences of DNA in the test tube. He called it the polymerase chain reaction.

His key insight was to use an enzyme that was active at high temperature to copy DNA. This DNA-copying enzyme, known as Taq DNA polymerase, had itself been discovered by David Gelfand and Susanne Stoffel at Cetus.

John Bergeron (July 29, 2020). The road to COVID-19 testing: The role of a Canadian biotech pioneer [Blog post]. Retrieved from