Dr. Roberts A. Smith
Professor Emeritus UCLA
Antiviral Research Pioneer
Inducted October 17, 2008
The work of Dr Roberts A. Smith has helped to save thousands of lives over the years. He was a pioneer in the anti-viral field and came up with the idea to limit the search for anti-viral compounds after the structure of DNA and RNA was discovered in the 1950s.
“Viruses are nothing but a small stretch of either DNA or RNA that are enveloped in either lipids or proteins,” said Smith. “All they like to do is infect cells, take over the host cell machinery and replicate themselves.”
Smith’s idea to limit anti-viral compounds led to the selection of a broad spectrum anti-viral that is now
widely used throughout the world in various life-saving drugs. Smith’s work is based on the concept that presenting viruses with substances that look like the normal components but don’t quite fit can interfere with its ability to replicate. “It’s a very simple concept but it turned out to be a very important one,” said Smith. “That really gave us a big lead in that field.”
In the 1990s his work took him to China, where he stayed at Mao Tse-tung’s summer home as Chinese authorities evaluated the use of one of his company’s drugs for treatment of hemorrhagic fever for renal syndrome. “It’s a dreadful disease,” said Smith. “The mortality is normally between 30 and 55%. Usually those who survive that disease will end up with kidney problems of such a nature that they will have to be dialyzed for the rest of their lives. They were therefore, for the Chinese and Koreans, a major economic burden.”
The drug – ribovaroin, knocked the mortality rate down to about 5%. Even more important for the authorities, said Smith, victims no longer suffered the associated kidney problems once cured.
While the drug was important, the Chinese authorities were not necessarily prepared to pay for it. “With big smiles on their faces they came to me and explained that pharmaceuticals are so important to the people that there are no patents in China and we’re not going to patent it, we’re just going to use it,” said Smith. “That was kind of a dreadful message to take back to my board of directors.” He laughed.
Smith went on to study AIDS and other diseases, eventually working on a drug that, when combined with interferon A, is used to treat Hepatitis C. “Today it is quite widely used in other parts of the world for certain diseases,” he said. “It’s an important drug and I am very happy to have had the opportunity to be associated with its development.”
Smith moved to the Comox Valley with his family in 1937, when he was just eight years old. It was the education he received at Courtenay Elementary and Courtenay High schools that provided the foundation for his future success.