On a cloudy morning Tuesday at the Swedish Embassy in Washington, D.C., MU Professor Emeritus George Smith began a round of Nobel Prize celebrations prior to the official Nobel ceremonies next month in Stockholm, Sweden. The embassy room was packed front to back with scholars, students, and admirers, as Smith took the stage with three of the six American Nobel winners for 2018 who are being recognized for work in the fields of physics, physiology, medicine, and economics.
Smith has been named winner of the prize in Chemistry for his research on bacteriophages that allows a virus that infects bacteria to create new proteins.
When bacteria is infected, they reproduce the genes found in the virus, which creates a protein with the modified phage. Smith began his research with the hypothesis that the recreation of phages could identify previously unknown genes, which would let researchers use antibodies to quickly figure out what phages carry the gene.
Smith says during his research he was simply fascinated by the flexibility of the phage and was exploring the newly discovered capabilities of being able to clone them billions at a time. He didn’t realize the implications that would have on the medical world.
“Previously the antibody was used as a spotlight to screen clones one at a time, a very tedious process that was limited in scale,” Smith said. “You could go through a million or something like that, but nothing like a billion or a hundred billion. So I thought of it as a way of greatly magnifying the scale of that kind of research. So that's what inspired me at the time, but it was a very limited project. I didn't realize at the time that this had way bigger implications than that.”
Smith shares the Nobel with Sir Gregory Winter, who applied Smith’s research in the development of the popular rheumatoid arthritis drug Humira. They’ve only met once, Smith said, but he said he’s known of the work done at Winter’s laboratory in Cambridge, England since the 1960s.
“It’s that same laboratory that Greg Winter is in now, in Cambridge, England that has developed this technology,” Smith said. “It was a pretty obvious application. They were in a position, though, to really exploit it quickly and effectively, so they were the ones that applied phage display to antibodies.”
During his research, Smith says he applied for a patent on his work but his application didn’t get accepted. He said he’s fortunate for that because further collaboration helped him explore the life-changing applications of his research.
“I didn't have a clear notion of how important it was,” he said. “The patent would've been useless. But again, it would’ve actually been damaging … because it would mean that you have to hold onto your ideas as intellectual property, as if, you know, you have to protect them as property. That means you can't talk to everyone, you can't be free with everyone and by that failure of the patent, it was a good thing for me, because it allowed me to talk freely with everyone.”
Smith spent 40 years as a professor at MU and during his research tenure he said he experienced many professional failures. He failed to get money for grants, had rejected patent applications and wandered down a few fruitless pathways in his research. He freely confessed to the audience that for many working in the sciences, failures can be more common than successes, but some successes can also bring the unexpected - like a Nobel prize.
One young audience member declared there must be something the laureates do to take their minds off of science. Smith humbly said that although he may not be very good at it, he loves to sing, and is also involved in local politics in his free time.
Smith and the five other American winners will travel to Stockholm in early December for the Nobel ceremonies: a week of press conferences, lectures and banquets.