January 2012

W. Neal Burnette: the man behind the Western blot

Burnette really had not thought much more about the paper between its acceptance and publication. “I just wanted another publication on my CV. What I didn’t realize [was] that it would be cited so many times that it would be cited orders of magnitude more than all my other papers put together!” Nowinski says had he or Burnette had any inkling of the paper’s impact, they would have handled the paper more deliberately.


W. Neal Burnette is now an avid golfer. 

 Academia to industry
By now, Burnette was at the Salk Institute as a research associate. Biotechnology companies were starting to pop up, and someone suggested to Burnette that he check out a tiny company in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Burnette interviewed with the company and landed a job that doubled his salary, offered something called stock, and made him one of the company’s earliest employees. The company was initially called Applied Molecular Genetics but soon became famous as Amgen when it released its blockbuster drugs Epogen and Neupogen for treating anemia in the 1980s.


Burnette was given independence to pursue his own research interests in recombinant vaccines. He led programs that resulted in the first experimental recombinant vaccines for hepatitis B, pertussis, cholera and a number of animal infectious diseases. “The best work I ever did was on developing what I call genetic toxoids,” he says. These toxoids are versions of the toxins produced by pathogenic bacteria. “I could make very selective site-specific substitutions within certain subunits of these multimeric toxins and inactivate toxic activities but allow them to retain their immunogenic properties so they could be used” for vaccine development, Burnette explains. “I enjoyed doing that work at Amgen, but Amgen really didn’t care about it. They had Epogen and some other big money-makers, and vaccines weren’t thought to be big money-makers.”

Burnette left Amgen in 1992. Thanks to the stock options he had received when he signed on at Amgen, Burnette now was at a point where he “didn’t need to work too hard.” He went on to become a director and executive of a number of smaller biomedical companies but “none of that was very successful.”

Military career
Despite not getting to be a military pilot, Burnette still served his country over the course of 35 years. Burnette joined the army reserves in the 1970s and went on active duty periodically. But his biggest contribution to national security came after 9/11. In 2001, at the age of 57, Burnette was mobilized for active duty as an infectious diseases specialist. He developed the first quantitative algorithm that assessed the threats of indigenous infectious diseases to military operations in regions around the world. He was an adviser to the chemical and biological defense program at the Pentagon. Among other things, Burnette was responsible for the acquisition of smallpox and anthrax vaccines for protecting the U.S. and allied forces against bioterror threats.

But the military also gave Burnette a chance to make something like a full circle to his childhood dreams of movies and Hollywood. Between 2004 and 2005, he served at a U.S. Army Reserve public affairs unit in Los Angeles. The unit helped screenwriters and TV and film producers create movies with greater military authenticity. “We often read scripts and commented on them to help” filmmakers understand how the military worked, says Burnette. “We got a lot of goofy scripts!”

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Nice article. So, is it "Western" or "western"? Or does either work, without a preference? - Bruce Maryanoff (bmaryano@scripps.edu)


I was a high school friend of Neil's and recall recognizing how committed he was to acting as we enjoyed a coke one evening at local hangout and he still had part of his make up on from a dress rehersal he had just attended. Little did I know how focused he would become on a wide range of endeavors or how greatly he would apply himself to so very many. I next met up with him at a 40th reunion and was thoroughly impressed by the reach of his shift to scientific discipline. At the time he was a full colonel filling a general's slot in the US Army. Congratulations to Neil on a life well lived and leaving a trail of useful accomplishments. And thanks to the author for seeing that such a life does not escape notice. James Sizemore - Bedford, TX.


I went to high school with Neil and we were good friends. After going our separate ways I lost touch with him. Now that we are retired I located him via facebook, and retrieved this article via that link. I used the western blot method while I was teaching and never knew it had a connection to an old buddy. I find the article fascinating, well written and a worthy tribute to someone who has so effectively contributed to scientific knowledge. I wish to thank the author for giving credit where credit was obviously due. A Cheer for Neil! With best regards, Gil R Alexander, Retired Director of the Montana Science Institute, and former President of the Montana Academy of Sciences



  • Neal: I just received an e-mail from Jim Kaper in which he said he and his wife had just returned from India with a visit to the Taj Mahal where he and I bumped into each other in 1990 by accident (we were there for different meetings). I was thus responding to him that you and I had visited there in 1992 and had our picture taken in front of the same minaret, except my picture with him was from 15 feet away since the place was crowded with 1000s of people whereas our picture was taken from over 100 feet away since we visited during a curfew where we had the whole place to ourselves with nobody but us and our guides! The two pictures are still on my bulletin board in my office to remind me of happy days and good friends. Hope all is well. Best regards, Roy

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