Oliver Smithies, professor of pathology, was named the winner of the 2001 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research on Sunday for his work manipulating mouse genomes to create animal models of human disease.
The Lasker Award is widely considered one of the highest awards in medical research and is referred to as "America's Nobels." Four scientists who have won the Lasker Award in the last three years have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.
"It's right up there next to the Nobel Prize as the most significant prize in medicine -- it goes to few individuals, all of them very outstanding," said Jeffrey Houpt, dean of the School of Medicine. "It's not the run-of-the-mill award."
Smithies' research, which was conducted in conjunction with Mario Capecchi of the University of Utah and Martin Evans of Cardiff University in Wales, used mouse embryonic stem cells to create specially engineered "knockout mice" with specific diseases.
The research allows certain genes to be disabled, using a two-step process, to recreate the cause of a certain disease or study the effects of a particular gene.
Charles Jennette, director of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, said Smithies' research represents a major step forward. "(His research) will allow scientists to learn a great deal -- it will be extremely valuable," he said. "I'm confident his discovery will lead to major advances in health care."
Work in genomic sciences has become one of the most important research areas at the University -- the UNC Center for Genome Sciences received official University recognition Aug. 10, and last February, UNC committed to spend $245 million in the next decade on genomic sciences.
Houpt also said Smithies' work is one of the most significant advances to come from UNC's labs. "His technology was adopted by other researchers and moved their research forward," Houpt said. "(The Lasker Award) is not really an award for potential, it's given in honor of an established breakthrough that has made real contributions."
And Smithies' colleagues also said he is an excellent researcher whom they enjoy working with. "He's a delightful man who's had a life of creativity -- he has a twinkle in his eyes and tremendous energy," Houpt said. "He can talk to a lay group and excite them; he can work with other scientists and excite them."
Dave Kaufman, professor and vice chairman of research development in the pathology department, also said Smithies is a particularly effective and approachable researcher. "I can tell you even as a senior investigator, he is so enthralled by research he looks like a kid in a candy store. He inspires people with that energy and excitement about what he's doing."
Smithies' colleagues said they are excited about the Lasker Award because it will bring prestige and recognition to the department. "It adds luster to the scientific status of institutions to have a recipient of the Lasker Award," Jennette said.
Smithies, who could not be reached for comment Friday or Sunday, also will be participating in the Chancellor's Science Seminar series Sept. 25, when he will discuss the history of research from a geneticist's perspective. Smithies also spoke as part of the Center for Genome Studies' seminar series on Aug. 27.
Houpt said having such a distinguished speaker will be an excellent addition to the series. "He will bring an understanding of how science works and how wonderfully exciting it can be."
The University Editor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.