British Nobel Prize winner vows to party on

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A party-loving professor has told of his “shock” at hearing he had won a Nobel Prize.

Sir Gregory Winter, 67, was nursing a hangover after a “feast” at his Cambridge college when the call came “out of the blue”.

And he revealed he planned to party on by splashing out £2,793 of his prize money on a champagne celebration at his laboratory.

Sir Gregory, who is Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with two ground-breaking American scientists.

He was honoured for pioneering work that led to a new generation of advanced antibody drugs.

Asked how he intended to spend his prize money, a quarter share of nine million Swedish krona (£770,000), Sir Gregory said: “I shall start this afternoon by paying for a party at my laboratory.

“I’ve already been given the champagne bill. It’s £2,793 and can I have your credit card, please.”

He told how he was sitting with his computer “looking balefully” at his day’s work schedule when the phone rang.

He said: “When I got the call I was recovering from a college feast. I’d had an aspirin; I’d had a coffee.

“It came as a bit of a shock. I felt numb for a while, wondering if this was real. It’s like you’re in a different universe.”

He insisted: “I had absolutely no inkling that this was going to happen.

“Being a scientist and being awarded the Nobel Prize is the highest accolade you can have.

“I’m just so lucky because there are so many brilliant scientists and there aren’t enough Nobel Prizes to go around. In the end one has to have a certain amount of luck.”

Sir Gregory’s surprise caller told him to expect a “very important announcement” before hanging up.

Soon afterwards, the phone rang again and he learned he was a Nobel Laureate.

“This operator had a Swedish accent,” Sir Gregory recalled. “It reminded me of my bank ringing up and telling me I had some dodgy transaction on my account… I was feeling a bit rocky.”

In the 1990s, Sir Gregory developed a new way of producing antibody proteins using a technique called “phage display” that employs genetically engineered viruses.

Today, so-called “monoclonal” antibodies are found in many of the most advanced targeted drugs.

They are used in a host of ways to neutralise toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and tackle spreading cancer.

Sir Gregory’s co-laureates are Professor Frances Arnold, from the California Institute of Technology, and Professor George Smith, from the University of Missouri.

Prof Arnold, who picks up half the award, conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes – proteins that catalyse chemical reactions.

Prof Smith first demonstrated the phage display technique later adopted by Sir Gregory in 1985.

The awards were announced at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm.

In its citation, the Nobel committee said: “The 2018 Nobel Laureates in chemistry have taken control of evolution and used it for purposes that bring the greatest benefit to humankind.”

Sir Gregory has followed a research career based almost entirely in Cambridge at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology and the Centre for Protein Engineering.

He also founded three Cambridge biotech companies based on his discoveries: Cambridge Antibody Technology, Domantis and Bicycle Therapeutics.

US biochemical engineer Frances Arnold
US biochemical engineer Frances Arnold (Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva/AP)

He said: “In the 1990s the pharmaceutical industry was run by chemists. As far as they were concerned a pharmaceutical drug was a chemical.

“People didn’t really believe antibodies would be therapeutic. These are great big proteins.

“It was the biotech companies who took it on board.”

He maintained that as a scientist he had always tried to keep his feet “on the ground”.

“It’s very easy to have vision; it’s very difficult to have visions that you can realise practically,” said Sir Gregory, who listed his main hobby as “moat engineering” at his country home.

He admitted his first wife “really had to suffer” because of his work, and for him science was “a bit like a drug addiction”.

Immunologist Professor Dan Davies, from the University of Manchester, said: “This is thrilling. The use of phage display to create new antibodies has been exceptionally important in science and medicine.

“As one example, Humira, developed with this technology, is used by thousands of people for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.

“With this medicine, far fewer people with rheumatoid arthritis are forced to use a wheelchair.”

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