Oliver Smithies receives O. Max Gardner Award

Call it an encore performance.

A year after winning the prestigious Albert Lasker Medical Research Award, Oliver Smithies, excellence professor of pathology, has received the O. Max Gardner Award. The announcement was made March 6.

The award, which has been given annually since 1949, was established by the will of N.C. Gov. Oliver Max Gardner to recognize faculty who have "made the greatest contributions to the welfare of the human race."

It is the only award for which all faculty members of the 16 UNC campuses are eligible and is considered the UNC system's highest faculty honor. The other recipient for 2002 was Melissa Hayden, a ballerina and master teacher at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

The award, which carries a $10,000 cash prize, was presented by Board of Governors Chairman Benjamin J. Ruffin, UNC President Molly Corbett Broad and by Charles H. Mercer Jr., the chair of the Gardner Award Committee.

A native of Yorkshire, England, Smithies received degrees in physiology and biochemistry from Oxford University. He made the first of two scientific contributions in 1956 when he invented an improved method for separating proteins. His discovery allowed researchers to better understand genetic differences between individuals.

Thirty years later, Smithies developed another technique called homologous recombination. This process enables genes to be altered in living cells by introducing DNA with a slightly different structure into the cells. He and others used this procedure to custom-produce mice and develop them into adult animals. Today, in genetic biology labs around the world, around 4,000 varieties of these mice are being used to advance the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer's, cancer and cystic fibrosis.

J. Charles Jennette, Brinkhous Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, described Smithies as a world-renowned scientist who has made numerous, extremely important discoveries.

"The innovative methods that he has developed would be enough to warrant all of the many awards that he has received," Jennette said. "However, he has gone on to use these powerful tools to make major discoveries that are of tremendous benefit to science and to medicine."

For example, Smithies not only developed the widely used technique of gel electrophoresis, but he also used this tool to make major discoveries about the nature of human proteins and genes, Jennette said.

"He has received the greatest acclaim for developing techniques to make very precise modifications in mouse genes. Oliver and his close scientific collaborator and wife, Professor Nobuyo Maeda, now are using genetically engineered mice to make extremely valuable observations about the nature of hypertension and atherosclerosis that will be very important for designing better treatment for these diseases."

Jennette said one of the keys to Smithies success in his work is that he does not see it as work.

"Oliver derives great joy from his scientific research," Jennette said. "He personally conducts experiments, often seven days a week. This avocation is obviously more play than work for Oliver.

"He also finds time to pursue his passion for flying. I suspect he combines these two interests by dreaming up many great experiments while soaring over the countryside in his glider. Oliver is a tremendous role model not only for graduate students and postdocs, but also for other faculty.

"Simply by doing what he loves to do, he is providing excellence in research, teaching and service to the University and the world."