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Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry


Courtesy Trinity College, Cambridge

Department alumnus Sir Greg Winter has been jointly awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Sir Greg shares half the prize with George Smith of the University of Missouri-Columbia, for their pioneering work in using phage display for the directed evolution of antibodies, with the aim of producing new pharmaceuticals. Frances H. Arnold of the California Institute of Technology received the other half of the prize for the "directed evolution of enzymes."

Sir Greg studied Natural Sciences here, graduating from Trinity College in 1973, and receiving a PhD in 1977, supervised by Brian S. Hartley and George Brownlee.  Sir Greg, who is the Master of Trinity College, is a genetic engineer best known for his research and inventions relating to humanised and human therapeutic antibodies. 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. He has also founded three Cambridge biotech companies based on his inventions: Cambridge Antibody Technology (acquired by AstraZeneca), Domantis (acquired by GlaxoSmithKline) and Bicycle Therapeutics.

Sir Greg 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."

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.

Professor Sir Alan Fersht, former Master of Gonville and Caius and Emeritus Professor in this department, collaborated with Sir Greg on early protein engineering work. "Greg Winter is an outstandingly creative scientist of a practical bent," he said. "He has applied his skills and imagination to the benefit of humankind to create, amongst other inventions, novel engineered antibodies that have formed the basis of a new pharmaceutical industry to treat disease and cancer. It is a thoroughly worthy Nobel Prize."

Professor Dame Carol Robinson, Royal Society of Chemistry president and former member of this department, 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.”

Frances H. Arnold 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, George Smith developed an elegant method known as phage display, where a bacteriophage – a virus that infects bacteria – can be used to evolve new proteins. 

More details on previous Cambridge winners can be found here:

See a fuller version of this story on the University of Cambridge website.