Nobel Prize Live in Copenhagen Summer of 2008

Publiceret Juli 2008

On a rainy Thursday, July 10th, 2008 “Biokemisk Forening” organized a scientific symposium entitled “Gene Targeting in Mice” to honor the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. This “bad timing”, as some pointed it out, was chosen since it was the only date when the 2007 Nobel Laureate, professor Oliver Smithies from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA could make it to Denmark this year. He was on his way to the XX International Congress of Genetics in Berlin and flying via Copenhagen fit well into his schedule.

Dr. Oliver Smithies
Dr. Oliver Smithies, Excellence professor
of pathology and laboratory medicine at
the University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill School of Medicine, is a co-recipient
of this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or
medicine. Portrait from University of
North Carolina Health Care October 6,

The two others with whom he shared the prize, professors Mario Capecchi and Sir Martin Evans, could not make it to Copenhagen at all this year. Since I had the honor and joy to be one of the organizers of the event, I wanted to write a bit about it for those who could not make it.

The symposium was held at the beautiful and practical Lundbeck Auditorium located in Copenhagen Biocenter, Ole Maaløes vej 5. In spite of the fact, that the symposium was organized in the middle of the best holiday season in Denmark, it was well attended: About 110 enthusiastic participants, some of which even came all the way from Odense and Lund.  “Wow! What a meeting. Even listening to one of these speakers would have been worth of the trip”, said a student from Odense. This was the atmosphere, and just as the 2006 Nobel Prize Symposium on “Interference RNA” we organized last year with Andrew Fire from Stanford University, the 2007 Nobel Prize Symposium became a memorable event to many of us.

The Symposium was made possible by the generous sponsorship of H. Lundbeck A/S and the members of the Biokemisk Forening, all of you faithful readers of the BioZoom. Valuable and important financial support was also received from the symposium exhibitors, who decorated the foyer with their colorful and fascinating stands: Applied Biosystems, Lonza Copenhagen, Ninolab A/S, Ramcon A/S, Reactionlab A/S, Saveen & Werner, VWR Bie & Berntsen.

Oliver Smithies arrived together with his wife professor Nobuyo Maeda a day before the symposium. Smithies and Maeda share their laboratories and work together at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Oliver Smithies was born in Halifax, England in 1925, was educated in Balliol College, Oxford, England, where he studied medicine for three years, where after he turned into chemistry. He immigrated to Madison, USA in 1960, to join the strong genetics group at the University of Wisconsin and stayed there more than 25 years.

Oliver Smithies told us in his lecture: “I was offered various chairmanships, but chose to continue my life as a bench scientist. But without this decision I might not have had the time to start the experiments, begun at age 57, which led to my best gene targeting paper, published after I was 60” (Smithies, O., Gregg, R. G., Boggs, S. S., Koralewski, M. A., and Kucherlapati, R. S.: Insertion of DNA sequences into the human chromosomal beta-globin locus by homologous recombination. Nature 1985; 317,230-234). In 1989 he moved with his wife Nobuyo Maeda to Department of Pathology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he has been working ever since.

We learned that during his career Oliver Smithies had actually developed two very important technical discoveries: gel electrophoresis and homologous recombination. He told us that he loves laboratory work and is still doing bench work 7 days a week. If he needs laboratory equipment that is not commercially available, he will build it up himself. Because of his great love to experimental science and the joy he gets by working with his own hands in his laboratory, he has rejected all the chairmanship positions he has been offered during his long career. It was really a treat to spend some hours with him. Oliver Smithies has amazing memory as well as wide and deep knowledge of science, music and airplanes. Spiced with a good sense of humor and personality that is kind, joyful and curious, he was truly a great visitor to host.

As the first talk of the symposium Professor Oliver Smithies gave his Nobel Lecture of 45 min about his great discoveries, how did he come to get them, as well as his trials and errors along the way. He also managed to talk a bit about his long-term dream and devoted work towards understanding of the complex genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis, atherosclerosis and hypertension. In the end of his talk he showed us a photo of him and an airplane. It turned out that he is a licensed pilot with his own airplane.

During the first session we heard interesting talks from two prestigious European based scientists: Professor Josef Penninger from the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Science, Vienna, Austria and Professor Nadia Rosenthal from the Mouse Biology Unit, EMBL Monterotondo Outstation, Monterotondo, Rome, Italy. Josef Penninger told us a most fascinating story about RANK, bone metabolism and breast cancer metastasis, which he learned from his mice studies. Nadia Rosenthal told us how EMBL with the support of EU together with USA, Canada and Australia is currently running programs that aim for targeting of all mouse genes individually.

In the second session the outstanding scientist: Professor Marc Caron, Department of Cell Biology, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina, USA told us about his groundbreaking and future forming research on the mouse models of the disorders of the central nervous system. After him Professor Henrik Semb from the Stem Cell Center, Lund University, Lund, Sweden talked about his strongly human therapy oriented work, on gene targeting in human embryonic stem cells. Professor Lars Bo Nielsen, Department of Clinical Biochemistry, Rigshospitalet, Copenhagen told us a highly interesting story of a novel apolipoprotein, apoM and its role in lipid metabolism and atherosclerosis. The last speaker of the day was Professor Cord Brakebusch, Biotech Research and Innovation Centre, Copenhagen Biocenter, who told us about his recent, very fascinating work that has resulted in better understanding of the function of RhoA and cdc42 in the skin keratinocytes.

The common theme to all the research presented was that it was made possible by the break-through of the Nobel award winning work of Oliver Smithies, Mario Capecchi and Martin Evans. It would be great if we could continue arranging these “Nobel prize events” in the future as well. Currently there are two major success factors required for this: a Noble prize winner that finds time to come to Copenhagen and sponsors that are willing to invest into it. Thus, we are very grateful to our sponsors and exhibitors for the financial support that makes this event possible.

2008_3 Smithies_and_Maeda.jpg
Professor Oliver Smithies and Professor Nobuyo Maeda in Restaurant Geranium, Copenhagen on July10th, 2008. Photo: Tuula Kallunki.

Post scriptum

In the spring of 2009 Biokemisk Forening will celebrate the Nobel prizes 2008 by two meetings. The Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine 2008 will be marked by a symposium with Nobel Lectures by Francoise Barré-Sinoussi, Institut Pasteur, Paris, France and Harald zur Hansen, German Cancer Research Centre, Heidelberg, Germany on their respective discoveries of Human Immunodeficiency Virus in AIDS and Human Papilloma Virus in cervical cancer.

Furthermore, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008 will be honored by a symposium with Nobel lecture by Martin Chalfie, Columbia University, New York, USA on his discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP.