Michael Smith: The Legacy

By: Howard Akler

Michael Smith learned how to rewrite the code of life. That’s a pretty big legacy in itself. But it goes even further. With the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, scientists now have a full map of all the genetic material in the human body. Smith’s technique gives them the chance to more easily replace or fix defective genes that lead to disease.

Gene therapy is a new practice that aims to directly attack disease. It is still in its early, experimental phase. Much of the research focuses on very rare illnesses, such as Inherited Retinal Disease (IRD). In 2000, Health Canada approved its first ever gene therapy, Luxturna, which treats IRD. Successes such as this one offer hope that gene therapy can eventually help patients with a broader range of disorders, such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. It has been called the health field of the future.

Smith loved research. He said that his time at UBC had given him 30 years of fun. In 1987, he decided it was time to give back. He accepted a position as founding director of UBC’s Biotechnology Laboratories (since renamed the Michael Smith Laboratories). This interdisciplinary unit was devoted to pure research. Smith recruited fine young scientists and searched for new sources of funding. He was never a fan of administrative chores, but did them anyway, anything to raise the profile of molecular science. 

Michael Smith Labratories Credit: University of British Columbia

Of course, nothing raised its profile more than Smith’s 1993 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. He donated all of his $500,000 prize money. Half he gave to support post-doc fellowships in schizophrenia research and the other half was split between funding public science education at BC’s Science World and the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology. 

Today, more than 20 years after his death, Smith’s legacy is obvious. His name is on the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre at BC Cancer, and the Michael Smith Labs at UBC. 

In a video commemorating the 25th anniversary of the prize, Brett Finlay, professor of microbiology and one of Smith’s earliest recruits, says: “You ask any person in the street what’s the biggest prize in science and they’ll say the Nobel Prize. So, he became a household name in Canada. And he actually used it as a platform to go talk to politicians in Ottawa and everywhere else. He actually leveraged it immensely just to get the discussion of why we need science in Canada and the world.”