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UNC Nobel Laureate Oliver Smithies Dead at 91

Oliver Smithies -- UNC at Chapel Hill photo

Oliver Smithies, D.Phil., who was recruited to North Carolina with grant funding from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center and won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 20 years later, died Tuesday at the age of 91.

In 1987, the Biotechnology Center helped recruit seven researchers from the University of Wisconsin in Madison to start the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's molecular biology and biotechnology research program.

Among them were British-born geneticist Smithies, D.Phil., and his wife, Nobuyo Maeda, Ph.D.

The Biotech Center’s faculty recruitment grant program, inaugurated to help attract that group of Wisconsin scientists, was named to honor Smithies after he became a Nobel laureate in 2007. It was later halted amid state budget cuts.

Smithies was revered as early as the 1950s for his work using starch to greatly improve gel electrophoresis, a process of separating proteins to identify genes. The innovation became standard in laboratories.

Smithies’ genius was also evident in the co-creation of a technique for introducing DNA material into cells, called transgenics. He contributed to the development of “knock-out” mice that gave medical researchers animal models for a wide range of human genetic disorders. “Knocking out” specific genes can mimic genetic diseases, enabling scientists to develop better diagnoses and treatments.

Smithies maintained an active research lab until his death, logging his work in handwritten journals his entire career.

A genial personality who spent long days scuttling around his lab, chatting with students and ducking in and out of his tiny adjacent office, Smithies found relaxation by driving a few miles north to Chapel Hill’s Horace Williams Airport and taking flight in his motorized glider.

"He was a superb scientist as well as a generous and thoughtful person," said Kenneth Tindall, Ph.D., NCBiotech's senior vice president of science and business development. "He will be missed."

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