Friday, April 3, 2009

Flipping through the chronicles of a Nobel Prize winner

"I want to share my time as a scientist by turning the pages in my scientific notebook", Oliver Smithies, 2007 Nobel Laureate for Medicine, said in front of a packed Love Auditorium in LSRC at Duke.

Oliver Smithies, a graduate of Oxford University, is the Excellence Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at University of North Carolina.

On Thursday, as part of The Duke MD-PhD Program Annual Symposium, Smithies delivered the keynote address "On Being a Scientist for 60 years."

"Science is a matter of chance, opportunity and planning. However, hardly anything ever happens as planned," Smithies noted. He said science has ups and downs. For example, his thesis paper for his PhD on the development of an extremely precise osmometer, "has the dubious distinction of never being cited by anyone."

"So what is, or what was, the point of all the work?" he asked. "It's how you learn how to do science."

Smithies has developed and pioneered numerous techniques in medicine and genetics over the past 60 years that are now universally used in all research work. Early in his career at the Connaught Medical Research Laboratory in Toronto, he developed a technique known as starch gel electrophoresis, which utilizes the properties of starch to act as a molecular sieve, allowing separation of proteins by size. Using this technique, he was able to isolate previously undiscovered protein components of the human serum.

"In my job at Toronto, I worked under David A. Scott, the first person to crystallize insulin. When I asked him 'what am I supposed to do here,' he acted like a true scientist and told me to do anything, as long as it was connected to insulin. That inevitably led to the development of starch gel electrophoresis. This was the chance- the chance invention."

In the mid-1980's , Smithies started to work on gene targeting, and he exploited the naturally occuring phenomenon of homologous recombination to introduce DNA at a defined position in the mammalian genome. "My opportunity here was the inherited differences in plasma proteins. The planning was to try and use the method of homologous recombination to modify the genes. It worked!" Smithies won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2007 for this seminal work.

Currently, even at the age of 83, Smithies continues to explore the field of medicine, and his lab at UNC currently focuses on the role of genetics in the development of high blood pressure.

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