A health research legacy for BC

18 April 2012

In October 1993, Dr. Michael Smith became BC’s first Nobel laureate, earning international acclaim for his role in developing one of the foundational tools of genetic engineering. For Smith, the Nobel Prize was the culmination of a career that saw him establish a reputation as one of the world’s foremost genetic researchers. For BC, the prize was a milestone pointing to the province’s potential as a global leader in health research.

Smith would have been 80 this month. This anniversary offers us the opportunity to reflect on his legacy and his lasting impact on BC’s health research community.

Smith came to BC from England in 1956 as a post-doctoral fellow. By 1966, he was a professor in the department of biochemistry at UBC, developing an international reputation for his work in molecular biology, particularly the synthesis of oligonucleotides (short strings of nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA).

In the mid 1970s, Smith began work on the procedure that would be his greatest achievement. Site-directed mutagenesis is a genetic engineering technique based on the notion that targeted mutations may be induced at specific sites in a genome. Using synthetic oligonucleotides produced by his lab, Smith developed and refined a method for selectively engineering mutations in genes. This technique has become one of the foundations of biotechnology and led to new diagnostic tests and treatments for genetic diseases.

The magnitude of this work was recognized on the global stage with the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. As evidence of his life-long commitment to health research, Smith pledged his $500,000 award to support science education and successfully challenged the provincial and federal governments to match his donation.

Smith died in 2000, leaving behind a remarkable legacy. As a researcher who spent his entire professional career in BC, Smith put our province on the map as a hub of world-class research and set the standard to which all future BC scientists aspire. His steadfast support for building BC’s research potential led to the creation of new facilities and resources, as well as the training of generations of young scientists.

The Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research was established in 2001 to carry on Smith’s commitment to building BC’s health research enterprise. Since then, we have upheld his legacy by supporting up-and-coming researchers and sustaining his vision of a strong, vibrant research community.

At the time of MSFHR’s founding, BC’s health research enterprise was at a crossroads. Despite the outstanding success of Smith and other research leaders, the province was under-performing in its ability to attract federal grant funding and faced the loss of top scientists to other jurisdictions. Thanks to the provincial government, MSFHR has invested more than $275 million to nurture talent and build infrastructure across all areas of health research.