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Grant Honors UNC Nobel Laureate

Courtesy of UNC-Chapel Hill

Oliver Smithies Faculty Recruitment Grant

An outstanding base of university faculty researchers is the first step in the long-term development process that brings life science products to the market and highly prized jobs to the state.

With that in mind, the Biotechnology Center created what is now known as the Oliver Smithies Faculty Recruitment Grant program to help universities attract these top scientists to North Carolina and outfit their labs once they arrived.

The grant program was named to honor Smithies, D.Phil., who 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.

Then, in the mid-1980s, while at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Smithies co-discovered a technique for introducing DNA material into cells. This gene targeting led to the creation of transgenic mice, or designer mice, that replicated human disease. This method also enabled knock-out mice. By targeting and removing, or knocking out, a specific gene, researchers have been able to find out what happens when it’s missing.

The grant program has invested $11 million on behalf of state taxpayers. With that support, the state's research universities have brought in 56 world-class bioscientists and more than $584 million in additional funding to those North Carolina research labs.

That’s a $53.48 known return on every dollar invested, to say nothing of the many non-monetary benefits of having this academic power added to campuses across the state.

Examples of recruits include:

  • In 1987, the Biotechnology Center helped recruit seven researchers to start the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's molecular biology and biotechnology research program. Among them was Smithies, D.Phil., who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2007.
  • Jeffrey Wright, Ph.D. the Carl B. Brown Distinguished Professor of Marine Science at the University of North Carolina Wilmington's Center for Marine Science. At the time of his 1999 recruitment, Wright was a member of the Royal Order of Canada and had discovered more than 100 compounds, applicable to improving human health and sustaining the shellfish industry. Wright coordinates UNCW's marine biomedical/biotechnology program’s search for useful medicines and other finds in marine microorganisms.
  • Anne-Marie Stomp, Ph.D. was recruited to North Carolina State University in 1986 for her expertise in forestry research. She later took an interest in duckweed -- a plant that grows significantly faster than trees. Her research created protein-production technology that was licensed to Biolex Therapeutics. After landing a $100,000 loan from the Biotechnology Center, Biolex has brought in more than $113 million in further venture and partnership funding. 

A brief look at other numbers from the program’s 25-year history:

  • 14 companies founded by recruits, 10 of those companies still active.
  • 92 U.S. patents granted to recruits and their universities.
  • Four members of the National Academy of Sciences.
  • One Nobel Laureate, Oliver Smithies.

In addition, departments and strengths were created at North Carolina universities where there were none before. Research from these laboratories has improved the health and everyday lives of people in North Carolina and around the world.