“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?
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 …
AS: It’s been a huge pleasure speaking to you. Once again, many, many congratulations.
GS: OK, bye.
Their work and discoveries range from cancer therapy and laser physics to developing proteins that can solve humankind’s chemical problems. The work of the 2018 Nobel Laureates also included combating war crimes, as well as integrating innovation and climate with economic growth. Find out more.