“I think it’s terribly important that scientists don’t ignore the opportunities that may come from their work”
Telephone interview with Sir Gregory P. Winter following the announcement of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
Transcript of the interview
Gregory Winter: Hello.
Adam Smith: Oh, hello. My name is Adam Smith from Nobelprize.org, which is the website of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm.
GW: Ah, yes.
AS: Many, many congratulations on the award.
GW: Thank you very much.
AS: Your work using phage display to engineer antibodies that became medicines is really a perfect example of how translational research would work, wouldn’t you say?
GW: Yes, because I suppose I started … I wasn’t actually thinking about doing translational work at the time I started the work so it was much more an interest in how one might create new molecules in general. I didn’t actually … in my earlier work with protein engineering I’d just been more interested in understanding how enzymes and things work, and then I started moving to antibodies again to try to understand how antibodies worked. And then I realised the power of evolutionary technologies to create large repertoires of them and to select them, and of course I think there are two components to the work that were really very important. The first was the generation of repertoires, and making sure those repertoires were efficient, fully folded proteins. And then secondly the way of displaying them on the use of the phage which George Smith had provided pointers to. So, so … and of course having … so it wasn’t as if I’d thought at the very beginning ‘right, I need to create pharmaceutical antibodies’. You kind of start working along a different route and then you find yourself gradually being, you know, seizing opportunities as they come up, and those opportunities were opportunities to actually overcome a really difficult problem which was how to make human antibodies against human self-antigens. And so realised that we could create this by using evolutionary technology. In some sense, it’s a bit like how the immune system works – you could also regard it as … I mean, you could think in terms of early evolution, but if you think about the way in which the immune system works, that is an evolutionary system. So we effectively… what we did is we started to rationalise it in terms of how can we mimic the immune system, which is an evolutionary system, to make human antibodies, but without all the checks and controls the immune system would have that prevent you from making anti-self antibodies.
AS: Quite, so how can you mimic and then direct.
AS: Yes, well there’s a very important message in all of that isn’t there – that one doesn’t really know where the opportunities are going to arise. You have to do lots and lots of basic research in order to be in a position …
GW: I certainly agree with that. I mean it’s… so my strategy, my personal strategy has been to do the basic research and let … and, but to be mindful of opportunities that may arise. In other words not to say ‘that’s applied, I’m not going to do it’. My own view has been actually if I just did the basic research and I came up with a, you know, a very interesting method and I didn’t take it any further then people would say ‘well that’s just a curious … you know, it’s very clever little system he’s got there but you know it’s a bit of curiosity really’. So I thought actually one needs to prove it, you need to drive it all the way through and so I certainly enjoyed that …
GW: I’ve just had the university people trying to coordinate all the incoming calls. It’s like a siege. We can’t actually get any … all the phonelines are blocked. Yep.
AS: I can imagine. You’re a scientist, you’re an inventor, you’re an entrepreneur, you’re an administrator. Where do you get the energy to do all this?
GW: Well it’s rapidly fading I can tell you! [Laughs] I mean, again I suppose, I don’t necessarily do all of them terribly well. I’ve done each of them well at different stages in my life, because in the end you have to say ‘why does the public give … is willing for large sums, I mean billions per year, to go into supporting science?’. It doesn’t agree to put the same amount into humanities, and the reason for that is that the public believes that some good will come of it. And if we want to maintain credibility with the, you know, public in general, we have to show that from time to time, yes indeed, exciting things will happen, and particularly things that are in the … for the public good. So I think it’s terribly important that scientists don’t ignore the opportunities that may come from their work. That doesn’t mean to say… some people say ‘well, applied research, that has no place in academia’ and I’m not sure I agree with that. But, yeah, there is a bit of an obsession now that you put the focus on application and you write projects for application. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but I think that sometimes if you want to make big leaps it’s sometimes more effective to be a little more defocussed, so that you actually focus on some basic research and you give the people the freedom to … and perhaps expect them to be responsible, and if they don’t want to take up the opportunities themselves, at least alert other people to them, so that these, the opportunities latent within whatever their inventions are can actually be exploited. So I think we kind of have a duty as scientists to do that. That’s my personal view.
AS: I must just very briefly touch on the LMB [MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology]. It’s yet another Nobel Prize from that environment, much has been said, but what is it that makes it so particularly special?
GW: People refer to the ‘LMB culture’ as the thing, one of the things, that makes it special. It’s an attention to people who are willing to tackle very big problems. I mean problems that are so big that you couldn’t just solve it in a grant. The kind of problem that you could devote your life to. I was very fortunate in having mentors of Fred Sanger and César Milstein who exercised a kind of very benign mentorship but encouraged us to think big.
AS: Well, I should leave you to your amazing day that’s unfolding.
GW: That’s right, yes, indeed.
AS: Thank you so much.
GW: Thank you very much, thank you.
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.