Well, not really, but today UNC Researcher Oliver Smithies won the Nobel Prize. Last year Dr. Smithies and I worked together for all of a few hours on a project. We more or less figured out that what I did couldn't help him, so that was that. Now, he has won the Nobel Prize. Back in 1997 I worked for a month in the lab of Sydney Brenner, then he went on to win the Nobel Prize. Work with me, win the Nobel : )
But, seriously, it is great to have a North Carolina professor win the Nobel.
CHAPEL HILL – Dr. Oliver Smithies, Excellence professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, is a co-recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
The Nobel Foundation today announced that Smithies, along with Mario R. Capecchi of the University of Utah’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Sir Martin J. Evans of the United Kingdom, will share this year’s Nobel Prize “for their discoveries of principles for introducing specific gene modifications in mice by the use of embryonic stem cells."
The achievement marks the pinnacle of a scientific career for Smithies, a UNC faculty member for 19 years, containing numerous honors and two major innovations that have fundamentally changed the science of genetic medicine and laid the foundation for today’s research into gene therapy.
In the mid-1980s, while at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Smithies co-discovered a technique to introduce DNA material in cells, replicated a natural process called homologous DNA recombination. He thought that genetic disorders could be treated by correcting mutations in bone marrow cells, or stem cells. This “gene targeting” led to the creation of transgenic mice, or “designer mice,” that replicated human disease. Smithies’ lab produced the first animal model of cystic fibrosis, a disease caused by one defective gene, and also studied high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and other diseases.
This method also enabled scientists to study specific genes by creating “knock-out mice.” By targeting and removing, or knocking out, a specific gene, researchers can find out what happens when it’s missing. Smithies has used the analogy of removing a steering wheel from a car; without it you soon find out why it has a steering wheel. Now this research method is commonplace in biomedical research and has been the basis for thousands of published papers.
According to the Nobel committee, “gene targeting in mice has pervaded all fields of biomedicine. Its impact on the understanding of gene function and its benefits to mankind will continue to increase over many years to come.”
In the 1950s, while at Connaught Medical Research Laboratory in Toronto, Smithies greatly improved gel electrophoresis, a process of separating proteins to identify genes, using starch. The innovation simplified the procedure and became standard in laboratories.
“Oliver Smithies’ innovations have revolutionized genetic research and advanced the effective treatment of many diseases, and millions of people worldwide have better and longer lives because of the talent and determination he has brought to his work,” said UNC Chancellor James Moeser. “For decades, he has embodied the very best of academic research and humanity through his modesty, good humor, creativity and love of invention. Through his example, hundreds of students and colleagues have learned how to help the world through research.