George Smith, MU Curators Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences, was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry early Wednesday morning.
This is the first Nobel Prize awarded to an MU professor for work conducted at the university.
“It’s incredible to think that work done in our labs, on our campus, have an impact on the quality of life of individuals all around the world,” Chancellor Alexander Cartwright said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
This year’s prize in chemistry is shared with Frances Arnold, of California Institute of Technology, and Sir Gregory Winter, of the University of Cambridge, for their evolutionary methods of solving modern medical issues.
Smith, 77, earned the award for development of bacteriophage display technology, which is the method of identifying unknown genes for particular proteins. Winter applied Smith’s research for subsequent work about antibody therapies for treatment of cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
The first pharmaceutical based on Winter’s work was approved for use in 2002. The chemical name of the drug is adalimumab, which has several trade names, including Humira, one of the top-selling drugs in the world.
Smith, who spent 43 years as a faculty member at MU, told The Associated Press that he learned of the honor in a pre-dawn phone call from Stockholm.
“It’s a standard joke that someone with a Swedish accent calls and says, ‘You won!’ But there was so much static on the line, I knew it wasn’t any of my friends,” he said.
Smith joined MU as an assistant professor in biological sciences in 1975.
In the 1980s, Smith said he experienced the “most exciting individual time” during his research career. He conducted research with former MU professor Jamie Scott and others on phage display systems, technology commonly used in the drug industry to extract certain proteins from their structures.
Smith and the other researchers were testing the systems with an antibody whose antigen was well known.
George Smith developed his Nobel Prize-winning phage display technology working on E.coli in 1985. Since then, the technology has been used to combat rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel diseases and potentially even Alzheimer’s disease.
When he was reading through the X-ray film of DNA sequences of peptides — two or more amino acids linked — he saw that one peptide bonded with an animo acid.
“It delighted us, but it didn’t surprise us,” he said about the discovery.
Soon after his “aha moment,” he realized that the technology was easily applicable for others. Winter applied Smith’s research in phage displays for subsequent research about antibodies in test tubes.
“His motivating factor has always been contributing to science, contributing to humankind, contributing to the greater good,” said Smith’s son Bram Sable-Smith.
“He truly wants to contribute to knowledge and help other people contribute to knowledge. That’s what he aspires to — to help humanity and help us learn and help us be more knowledgeable together,” his son added.
Smith credited his success to his extended knowledge in biological sciences he learned in college. He studied cell biology during the emergence of genetic code research, so every week he was reading breakthrough information and data on the topic, he said.
He was the “right person at the right place” throughout his career, he said, because “several key areas of knowledge came together” in both education and subsequent research.
“There have been enormous numbers of people in this web of science, and I happen to be somewhere in the middle of that, and that’s why I’m getting this prize,” Smith said to reporters Wednesday. “But, it’s not really honoring me personally, so much the things that have surrounded this, all the scientists that surround this.”
During Wednesday’s news conference, Smith said science was a field built on collaboration.
“Science doesn’t work by picking winners,” Smith said. “Science is a big community of people engaged in their work and their teaching.”
Thomas Quinn, professor of biochemistry, said he has been a colleague and friend of Smith for nearly 20 years. He’s grown to appreciate Smith not only for his science but for who he is as a person.
“He’s obviously very brilliant, but he’s also very humble,” Quinn said. “He’s very generous.”
Smith has always been very involved in student education, Quinn said. He provides an expertise in his areas of study but is also really well versed in all aspects of science.
Judy Wall, MU Curators Distinguished Professor Emerita of Biochemistry, said Smith is “clearly a genius.”
“I see him from a distance, and I’ve always been in awe of him,” she said.
Smith isn’t willing to publish anything but the best papers, she said, waiting until something is important enough to publish.
“George has always been a man of principle in that regard,” Wall said. “It’s really amazing.”
Mark McIntosh, vice president for research for the UM System, noted the importance of the collaborations of researchers at MU and around the world.
“Display phages, such as those developed in Dr. Smith’s lab, provide a foundation for a wide range of applications that could impact experiments between basic scientists and clinicians like those envisioned in the Translational Precision Medicine Complex,” McIntosh said by email Wednesday afternoon. “I’m interested to see how this Nobel laureate’s legacy will continue to contribute to research in the future.”
At the news conference Wednesday afternoon, Smith said he does not think this honor will change his life. He is retired but still contributes to the university and said he anticipates receiving many invitations to attend lectures in the future.
Smith spoke about his influences, his research and his experience at MU during the conference. As he stepped on the podium, the crowd in front of him gave a standing ovation. At the end of the conference, people rushed to take selfies with him and congratulate MU’s new Nobel laureate.
Smith’s son said his father never planned to win the Nobel Prize.
“He wasn’t enamored with the Nobel Prize; he was enamored by the work of the people who had won the Nobel Prize,” Sable-Smith said.
“We get so overlooked in Missouri, and even though my father won the Nobel today, this year, it’s for work he did in 1985. Mizzou has been doing phenomenal work.”
Missourian reporter Morgan Spears contributed to this report.