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UNC Nobel laureate Oliver Smithies dies

Posted January 11, 2017 3:25 p.m. EST

Dr. Oliver Smithies

— Oliver Smithies, the first University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor to win a Nobel Prize, died Wednesday at age 91, the school announced.

Smithies, the UNC School of Medicine’s Weatherspoon Eminent Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, shared the 2007 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with two colleagues for their work in genetics. He developed a technique called homologous recombination that introduced targeted genetic modifications to cells and allowed the creation of so-called "knockout mice" to help scientists understand how individual genes work.

Knockout mice also have been used to study and model varieties of cancer, obesity, heart disease and other illnesses. Smithies’ lab created the first animal model of cystic fibrosis in 1992.

"Oliver Smithies was such a loving, wonderful force for all things good in this world," Chancellor Carol Folt said in a statement. "Spending time with Oliver and (his wife) Nobuyo has been one of the highlights of my tenure at Carolina. Every time I saw the two of them together, I was uplifted and inspired by their relationship, joyful attitude to life and generosity of spirit."

"Oliver was a truly remarkable person with a joy for life and science. His brilliance was paired with infectious enthusiasm that inspired everyone around him," J. Charles Jennette, Kenneth M. Brinkhous Distinguished Professor and chair of the department of pathology and laboratory medicine, said in a statement.

A native of England, Smithies earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Oxford University. He joined the UNC faculty in 1988 and continued working in his lab until his death.

Last fall, the university launched the Oliver Smithies Research Archive website to make publicly available the 150-plus notebooks where he meticulously recorded his notes daily.

Smithies is survived by his wife, Nobuyo Maeda, the Robert H. Wagner Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the School of Medicine.