George P. Smith

Interview

“Actually I thought it was one of the numerous jokes … but there was so much static on the line I knew it had to be real”

George P. Smith was interviewed immediately following the announcement of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on 3 October 2018. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.

Transcript of the interview

George P. Smith: Hello.

Adam Smith: May I speak to George P Smith please?

GS: Yes, yes, this is he.

AS: Oh hello, my name is Adam Smith. I’m calling from Nobelprize.org, the official website of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm. Well, many congratulations on the award of the prize.

GS: Thank you very much.

AS: It’s, what, coming up to 5am there. Did the call wake you?

GS: No, actually had just woken up. You know, elderly people have a difficult time sleeping sometimes so I got up really early at about 4.

AS: What was your first reaction on hearing the news?

GS: Great surprise. Actually I thought it was one of the, sort of, numerous jokes ‘Call coming in from Stockholm’ [Laughs] which is kind of like a mean … that’s really what I kind of thought it was, but there was so much static on the line I knew it had to be real.

AS: We’re going back to 1985 when you had this idea to get viruses that infect bacteria to display peptides for you. Did the idea come to you suddenly or was it a long process?

GS: Oh no, no, no, certainly not suddenly, no. It was an idea from … with many sources because I had all these streams that were very much in my background at the time. So it was definitely not something that just popped into my head.

AS: But so much a case of being the right person in the right place at the right time.

GS: It is very much the right person and the right time. I mean I was trained in immunology, but I also knew a lot about this phage, and classical, you know, molecular biology, that’s what my basic training was in college.

AS: You never know which pieces of information are going to be useful and what you’re going to need to combine to make something happen, I suppose.

GS: Well I think that’s very, very true. It’s like evolution, you really don’t know which mutation is going to be the one that, you know, that flourishes.

AS: Were you surprised by the rapidity with which it was all taken up?

GS: You know, it was, as I say, all those precedents that were in the air, so no I wasn’t that surprised actually. And I certainly wasn’t surprised … I mean, another … I’m sharing my half, our half with Greg Winter, so he came out of this Cambridge group that had been, as they were calling, a cloning … cloning the immune system at the time. So that was very similar, very allied, line of reasoning, line of research. And I was very aware of that too, so I actually wasn’t surprised that people would catch onto it because it was something that was … it was a way of thinking very much in the air at the time.

AS: And did you dream that it would lead to, for instance, the therapeutic antibodies that came out of Winter’s work?

GS: Well, that’s a good question. I don’t think that, certainly in ’85, that I thought in those terms, although I was very much interested in antibodies and very much aware of the work in the Cambridge group. But the first publication of single-chain antibodies … single-chain antibodies are sort of paired down antibodies that have the central feature of binding specifically to an antigen that are missing a whole bunch of other things and are single polypeptide chains. At that point it became quite obvious that, well I won’t say quite obvious, but it seemed very plausible that not just small peptides but larger folded domains like single-chain antibodies could be displayed on phage just like small peptides. And of course the Cambridge group realised that at the same time, and independently, so …

AS: What an exciting journey to be part of.

GS: Well, I guess it seemed so at the time, I mean, you know … so many years later it seems a little bit old hat.

AS: And I know you haven’t had long for it to sink in, but what do you think the prize means to you?

GS: You mean, what does it mean personally?

AS: Yeah.

GS: I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I have no idea! I’m completely unprepared for this. I mean I’ve been retired for three years, and I have very different interests now. And so that remains a question to be answered. I don’t know what this will mean for my life.

AS: Well you’ll have plenty of time to find out, and plenty of time to mull over it before you come to Stockholm in December.

GS: Well apparently I have, you know, like a few minutes before reporters are going to be ringing the phone off the hook.

AS: I’m afraid I think the day is going to take a very different turn, so …

GS: [Laughs]

AS: It’s been a huge pleasure speaking to you. Once again, many, many congratulations.

GS: OK, bye.

To cite this section
MLA style: George P. Smith – Interview. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2018. Sun. 16 Dec 2018. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/2018/smith/interview/>

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