Sir Gregory Winter jointly awarded 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Professor Sir Gregory Winter, the Master of Trinity College, has been jointly awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, with Professors Frances Arnold and George Smith, for his pioneering work in using phage display for the directed evolution of antibodies, with the aim of producing new pharmaceuticals.

The first drug based on this method, adalimumab, was approved in 2002 and is used for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases. Since then, phage display has produced antibodies that can neutralise toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and cure metastatic cancer.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the 2018 Prize this morning with one half to Frances H Arnold and the other half jointly to George P Smith and Sir Gregory P Winter.

The Nobel Assembly said:

‘The 2018 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have taken control of evolution and used it for purposes that bring the greatest benefit to humankind. Enzymes produced through directed evolution are used to manufacture everything from biofuels to pharmaceuticals. Antibodies evolved using a method called phage display can combat autoimmune diseases and in some cases cure metastatic cancer.’

Sir Gregory is a genetic engineer best known for his research and inventions relating to humanised and human therapeutic antibodies. Sir Gregory is a graduate of Trinity and was a Senior Research Fellow. He became Master of Trinity in 2012.

His research career has been based almost entirely in Cambridge at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology and the Centre for Protein Engineering, and during this time he also founded three Cambridge biotech companies based on his inventions: Cambridge Antibody Technology (acquired by AstraZeneca), Domantis (acquired by GlaxoSmithKline) and Bicycle Therapeutics.

Sir Gregory becomes the 107th Nobel Affiliate of Cambridge to be awarded a Nobel Prize. Born in 1951 in Leicester, Sir Gregory studied Natural Sciences at Trinity and was awarded his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1977. He said: ‘It came as a bit of a shock, and I felt a bit numb for a while. It’s almost like you’re in a different universe. For a scientist, a Nobel Prize is the highest accolade you can get, and I’m so lucky because there are so many brilliant scientists and not enough Nobel Prizes to go around.’

Professor Patrick Maxwell, Regius Professor of Physic and Head of the School of Clinical Medicine at the University of Cambridge, said:

I am absolutely delighted that Sir Greg’s work has been recognised with a Nobel Prize. The work for which the prize is awarded was carried out on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. It directly led to the power of monoclonal antibodies being harnessed for treatment of disease. Medicines based on Sir Greg’s discovery have transformed the lives of patients around the world. His inventions really have produced silver bullets that have transformed the way medicine is practised.

Professor Dame Carol Robinson, Royal Society of Chemistry President, said:

Today’s Nobel Prize in chemistry highlights the tremendous role of chemistry in contributing to many areas of our lives including pharmaceuticals, detergents, green catalysis and biofuels. It is a great advert for chemistry to have impact in so many areas. Directed evolution of enzymes and antibody technology are subjects that I have followed with keen interest; both are now transforming medicine.  It would have been hard to predict the outcome of this research at the start – this speaks to the need for basic research. I am delighted to see these areas of chemistry recognised and congratulate all three Nobel Laureates.

Prof Herman Waldmann, Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, said: ‘Greg has pioneered ways of obtaining human antibodies using bacteriophages so obviating the need for any immunisation of animals or humans to generate them.  His technology has also enabled the generation of improvements in the binding power of any given antibody. This was a far sighted discovery achieved at a time when immunologists were grappling with difficulties around immunisation to produce desirable antibodies, and will have broad implications in medical diagnosis and treatment, as well as enabling the generation of valuable research reagents.’

Dr Ian Tomlinson, a student of Sir Gregory’s at the LMB, paid tribute to an inspirational scientist, with whom he co-founded Domantis.

‘His groundbreaking research has inspired a generation of scientists and entrepreneurs, led to the foundation of several successful biotech companies and resulted in the creation of some of the world’s most important life-changing medicines. I would like to offer my congratulations to Greg on behalf of all those people, like myself, that he inspired to pursue a career in the life sciences.’

Looking back on his career on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Sir Gregory explained that he had been driven by curiosity.

I was very interested in the idea of using antibodies against cancer. Antibodies are part of your normal defence mechanism about virus and bacteria but actually the way the immune system is constructed it doesn’t really allow to use those against such things as cancer, diseases of your own tissues. The approach that we developed allowed one to create human antibodies that you could make against human tissues such cancer cells.

When we made these discoveries I was still a pretty basic scientist but as the impact of those discoveries become clearer I started moving more of my efforts towards application because I realised what a wonderful technology we had and how many things we could tackle with it.

Professor Frances Arnold, Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, BioEngineering and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology, who shared today’s Prize, conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes, which are proteins that catalyse chemical reactions.

Since then, she has refined the methods that are now routinely used to develop new catalysts. The uses of Frances Arnold’s enzymes include more environmentally friendly manufacturing of chemical substances, such as pharmaceuticals, and the production of renewable fuels for a greener transport sector.

In 1985, Professor George Smith, Curators’ Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biological Science at the University of Missouri, developed an elegant method known as phage display, where a bacteriophage – a virus that infects bacteria – can be used to evolve new proteins.

Listen to Sir Gregory on the 4 October Today Programme (interview starts 1:32; available until 1 November).

Watch a short video about Sir Gregory’s research.

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