Magazine names PNNL proteomics leader top scientist

RICHLAND — Richard Smith, a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, has been named the 2010 Scientist of the Year by R&D Magazine.

As director of proteomics at the Department of Energy national lab, he has tackled problems from Parkinson's disease to cancer to biofuels production over his career and provided new scientific insights.

He's the first DOE scientist to win the award.

There's an "excitement of being involved with so much biological research that has the potential for profound impacts on everything from human health, to new sources of energy, to better understanding climate change," Smith said.

His work has helped push technological advancements in the field of proteomics, bringing analytical chemistry techniques into the domain of microbiologists and medical researchers, according to PNNL.

Proteomics seeks to understand biology by examining the complement of proteins at work within organisms, tissues and cells.

"Over the past five years, Smith's contributions to proteomics measurements have laid critical groundwork for breakthrough advancement in systems biology," R&D Magazine said in announcing the award.

Among other work, Smith and his colleagues have looked at how bacteria and viruses might cause illness. They've learned breast cancer leaves traces behind in the blood that may help doctors one day.

Some of his breast cancer research has been supported by the Entertainment Industry Foundation. As part of the project kick-off of a consortium led by Lee Hartwell of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Smith attended a Los Angeles dinner where proteomics researchers and Hollywood celebrities met and mingled.

In the last few years Smith has led work that trimmed the time it took to perform analytical steps for proteins, which can be linked to disease or infection, from hours to minutes. Cells generate hundreds of thousands of proteins and many of the problem proteins that might be linked to a disease or infection don't have names or are too rare to be found easily among thousands of other proteins.

Speeding up the analysis has allowed many samples to be processed faster. In addition, Smith has led other advances in sensitivity and accuracy that have improved the ability to find rare proteins.

Smith and his collaborators have applied the technology to liver disease and cancer in the hopes of finding rare markers of disease in blood, which could make diagnosis or treatment safer and faster.

Smith also has led studies for DOE into possible roles for microbes in making biofuels and has examined how large environmental communities of microbes function and affect the environment. A better understanding of microbes could allow them to be used to trap radioactive contaminants or greenhouse gases.

The R&D award is not only validation of the importance of the research being conducted at PNNL, but also recognition of the research team he leads, Smith said.

"It is one thing to have an idea, but in my view, the much greater challenge is in making the idea a reality," he said in a statement.

Smith is one of the most-published scientists in the field of proteomics, according to PNNL. He has published more than 775 scientific papers on all subjects and holds 38 patents. He also serves as director of the National Institutes of Health Research Resource Center for Integrative Proteomics.