MRC scientist wins 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry


The MRC and the Cambridge Network community are delighted to congratulate Professor Sir Gregory Winter, a former Deputy Director of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, on being awarded a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the phage display of peptides and antibodies.

One half of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to Frances H Arnold. The other half is shared by Sir Gregory and George P Smith.

This is the 12th Nobel Prize awarded for work undertaken at the MRC LMB, living up to its well-earned nickname of ‘the Nobel Prize factory’. The total number of Nobel Prizes awarded to MRC-funded scientists is now 24, shared among 33 individuals. Sir Gregory will receive his Nobel Prize in Sweden in December.

Commenting on Sir Gregory’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry Professor Fiona Watt, Executive Chair of the MRC, said: “Huge congratulations to Professor Sir Gregory Winter on this well-deserved accolade.

“The pioneering breakthrough work by Sir Greg and his colleagues at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology to develop humanised, and human, therapeutic antibodies has initiated a pharmaceutical revolution and led to the establishment of a whole new class of drugs which have helped millions of patients worldwide. 

“Today, monoclonal antibodies account for a third of all new treatments, such as the arthritis drugs adalimumab and Humira, the multiple sclerosis drug Lemtrada and the breast cancer drug Herceptin.

“The MRC is proud to have funded Sir Greg Winter over many years to conduct this research. His success is a testament to the MRC’s strategy for long-term investment of taxpayers’ money in fundamental discovery research. This is the second Nobel celebration in two years at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology – no wonder it’s known as the ‘Nobel Prize factory’. “

Sir Gregory studied Natural Sciences and completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge. His research career has been almost entirely based at the LMB and the MRC Centre for Protein Engineering (CPE) spanning from 1973 to 2014. He became a Programme Leader, was Joint Head of the Protein and Nucleic Acid Chemistry Division, Deputy Director of the LMB and Deputy Director of CPE. Since 2014 he has been Emeritus at the LMB. 

His main research focus is genetic and protein engineering. In his early research he was interested in the idea that all antibodies – part of the immune system that fights invading bacteria and viruses – have the same basic structure, with only small changes making them specific for one target.

Building on the Nobel Prize-winning work of Georges Köhler and César Milstein, also at the LMB – who discovered a way to make rodent antibodies attack cells and proteins involved in disease – Sir Gregory wondered if he could engineer entirely new proteins using an antibody ‘scaffold’.

In 1985, George P Smith developed a method known as phage display, where a bacteriophage – a virus that infects bacteria – can be used to evolve new proteins. Sir Gregory used this phage display method to transplant small parts of mouse antibodies into human antibodies, in the process ‘humanising’ them and solving the problem of patient immune responses against mouse-derived antibody treatments.

The first therapeutic antibody based on this method, adalimumab, was approved in 2002 and is used for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases. Since then, Sir Gregory’s pioneering techniques in humanised and human therapeutic antibodies, have led to antibody therapies for cancer and diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

On winning the Nobel Prize, Sir Gregory commented: “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. For a scientist, a Nobel Prize is the highest accolade you can get, and I’m so lucky because there are so many brilliant scientists and not enough Nobel Prizes to go around.

“When I was working on antibodies at the LMB, I had no idea they would be commercially successful. We had to convince people that they could be used as therapeutics.

“I had fantastic mentors here, including Fred Sanger and César Milstein... There’s a culture here that we should tackle really difficult problems, which sometimes take many years. The commitment to long-term research is so important.”

Today, monoclonal antibodies are a family of drugs treating millions of patients and they are widely viewed as the greatest UK contribution to medical science in recent decades. All these medicines rely on intellectual property owned by the MRC, thanks to Milstein and Köhler’s original discovery.

Jan Löwe, LMB Director, commented, “I am most delighted that an LMB scientist has been given the ultimate scientific accolade. It highlights the LMB’s unique culture, but more importantly, rewards one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial scientists of his generation.”

Sir Gregory has established hugely successful spin out companies including: Cambridge Antibody Technology (acquired by AstraZeneca), Domantis (acquired by GlaxoSmithKline) and Bicycle Therapeutics, all of which focus on technologies for antibody or antibody-like drugs.

In 2013 he was awarded the MRC Millennium Medal, which recognises research that has led to significant health and economic benefits.

He is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and has been Master of Trinity since 2012. He was elected a member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation in 1987, a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1990 and Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2006, as well as being a Fellow or Honorary Fellow of many other professional organisations. He has also been awarded numerous prizes and medals, and received a Knighthood for services to Molecular Biology in 2004.

UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Sir Mark Walport, said: “Sir Greg Winter’s pioneering research, much of it supported by the Medical Research Council, has made major contributions to global health and wellbeing.

“The phage display method he developed led to a new range of targeted therapies and effective treatments for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.

“On behalf of UKRI, I would like to send our warmest congratulations to Sir Greg on the extremely well-deserved award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. We are all delighted for him.”

Image credit: Photography by Tony Pope, for the MRC

To read more information, click here.

The Medical Research Council has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers’ money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health.

MRC [Medical Research Council]