Harnessing Evolution to Make Medicines: Sir Gregory gives Nobel Prize Lecture

The Master of Trinity, Sir Gregory Winter, will receive his share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2018 at a ceremony in Stockholm City Hall on 10 December and give a public lecture on Saturday 8 December that will be live-streamed.

Sir Gregory shared half of this year’s chemistry prize with George Smith, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri ‘for the phage display of peptides and antibodies.’

The other half of the prize was awarded to Professor Frances Arnold, Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry, at the California Institute of Technology ‘for the directed evolution of enzymes.’

The winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry share the 9 million Swedish Kroner prize, which is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Professor Smith invented phage display by harnessing the ability of the bacteriophage virus (literally ‘bacteria eater’) to infect bacteria and force it to produce viral, rather than bacterial components. By genetically altering the phage, Professor Smith could change the molecules it reproduced. This method of phage display enabled scientists to discover which genes generate which proteins.

While at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Sir Gregory engineered phages to produce antibodies – in particular the part of an antibody that attaches to other molecules.

‘I was very interested in the idea of using antibodies against cancer. The immune system normally makes antibodies that recognises foreign agents, such as virus and bacteria, and does not make antibodies that recognise ‘self’ and attack our own tissues,’ he said.

‘Generally this is fortunate, but the consequence is that it is difficult to make human antibodies against non-infectious diseases such as cancer or rheumatoid arthritis. To overcome these limitations, we created an artificial immune system using bacteria and bacterial viruses capable of generating a range of human antibodies against non-infectious disease.’

Sir Gregory likens antibodies to keys that can unlock cancer cells.

That was essentially the strategy with antibodies. We created huge numbers of antibodies and then we tested them out on the particular ‘lock’ we were interested in.The virtue of the phage is that it allowed us to technically test all of the keys at the same time.

By developing antibodies to target particular cells, his research catalysed a new class of pharmaceutical drug, transforming the treatment of cancer and autoimmune conditions.

Sir Gregory founded a succession of biotech companies: Cambridge Antibody Technology (acquired by AstraZeneca), Domantis (acquired by GlaxoSmithKline) and Bicycle Therapeutics, with which he is actively involved. CAT discovered the first human antibody based drug, Adalimumab (trade name Humira), to treat rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease.

Today, therapeutic antibodies account for a third of all new treatments, with predicted global sales of nearly US$ 125 billion by 2020.

The 2018 Nobel Lectures in Chemistry will be held on Saturday 8 December 10.20-12.10pm (UK time) at the Aula Magna, Stockholm University. Sir Gregory will speak about Harnessing Evolution to Make Medicines. You can watch the livestream on Saturday and a video will be available soon after the lecture.

Swedish STV visited Trinity to interview Sir Gregory for Nobel Prize Week (voiceover in Swedish). Photographer Graham CopeKoga captured their visit to Cambridge in photos below.

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