Public Release: 

Smithies wins top award from Massry Foundation

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

CHAPEL HILL -- Dr. Oliver Smithies of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been selected to receive the 2002 Massry Prize for pioneering research on how genes affect health and illness in humans and other mammals. Given by the Meira and Shaul G. Massry Foundation of Beverly Hills, Calif., the award consists of a gold medal and $40,000.

Smithies will share the prize with Dr. Mario Capecchi of the University of Utah, who has done similar research. Presentation will take place Oct. 26 at the Council Chamber of the City of Beverly Hills.

Before the ceremony, at which the UNC School of Medicine faculty member will describe his work, Smithies will lecture at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles.

Excellence professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at UNC, Smithies won the honor for gene targeting, a technique he pioneered. He and his colleagues have developed mice with mutations that model human genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis, some forms of anemia, high blood pressure and atherosclerosis, a condition commonly called "hardening of the arteries." Thousands of other researchers around the world have adopted the technique since then.

"Information stored in DNA is remarkably similar in all living organisms," a Massry foundation citation said. "Thus, the simple house mouse has long been a surrogate for genetic studies of humans. However, initially, very few examples of mice with spontaneous, known mutations of specific genes were identified and studied. The dream of genetic scientists was to create a systematic collection of mice that had mutations in most if not every individual gene. Studying the consequences of the loss of each gene would allow scientists to deduce a gene's function, and thus to reveal its normal role in the mouse and its very likely role in humans.

"It was Oliver Smithies and Mario Capecchi, working independently, who determined how to target mutations to specific genes within cells. It was also Capecchi and Smithies who applied these techniques, called homologous recombination, to embryonic stem cells -- cells that are capable of giving rise to a whole organism. Most important, both Smithies and Capecchi also realized that homologous recombination in stem cells would allow the creation of intact mice carrying a mutation targeted to a specific gene."

Almost simultaneously, the two produced strains of mice -- one in which deletion of a specific gene closely mimicked a severe childhood neurological disease and the other in which the faulty gene was corrected.

"Their novel approach to the creation of specific mutant mice revolutionized mammalian genetics," the statement said. "It created opportunities in biomedical research never before seen in the 20th century. This elegant approach has led to development...of many thousands of useful mouse models, many of which simulate human disease states -- including cystic fibrosis, atherosclerosis, muscular dystrophy and cancer.

"The creation of these mouse models strains...forms the basis for rapid advances in diagnosis, treatment and cure of human disease. The inventive discoveries" are of "monumental importance."

Recently, along with his wife Dr. Nobuyo Madea, the UNC scientist has been studying high blood pressure -- a major human problem -- using genetically altered mice they created.

A member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, Smithies already has earned many international, national and state awards, including the 2001 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, often called the "America's Nobel." Other honors include two Gairdner awards, the Alfred P. Sloan Award of the General Motors Foundation, the Ciba Award of the American Heart Association, the Bristol Myers Squibb Award for cardiovascular and metabolic disease research, a North Carolina Award in Science and the International Okamoto Award from the Japan Vascular Disease Research Foundation, one of Japan's highest honors.

In a 1995 profile, the New York Times called him "a scientific phenomenon, a man whose intellectual pace has continued unabated for half a century...who continues to break new scientific ground."

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Note: Smithies can be reached at (919) 966-6913. More information about him is available at http://www.pathology.unc.edu/path/common/smithies.htm.

By DAVID WILLIAMSON
UNC News Services

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