Austin Smith is a pioneer in one of the most controversial yet promising new areas of science: human embryonic stem cells. Since these master cells can morph into any tissue in the body, they have the potential to replace and repair cells damaged by diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and diabetes. The 41-year-old Smith is Britain's top expert on stem cells and heads the University of Edinburgh's Centre for Genome Research.
Now, after two decades of researching mouse embryonic stem cells, Smith has turned his focus to humans. On Feb. 27, Britain became the first country to pass legislation permitting research on human embryonic stem cells by scientists who receive a license from the Human Fertilization & Embryology Authority (HFEA). Just a few days after the law went into effect, Smith received one of only two licenses granted so far by the HFEA.
Smith says he will use his privileged status to try to develop the "best methods for cultivating stem cells and to direct them to make nerve, heart, and blood cells," he says. The potential is so great, Smith believes, that he predicts clinical trials involving stem cells derived from human embryos will be under way for patients with Parkinson's disease within a decade.
Born in Liverpool, Smith has been pursuing the secrets of stem cells his entire professional life. He first learned about their potential as an undergraduate at Oxford University. After graduation, he joined a stem-cell lab at the University of Edinburgh, where he later received a PhD in developmental genetics. After a research stint at Oxford, he set up his own stem-cell research group at Edinburgh's Centre for Genome Research. Colleagues describe Smith as an intensely private and driven scientist. Outside of the lab, his main passion is football. He's a keen supporter of Everton, a Liverpool football club.
But these days, Smith has little time for sports. As a member of several government scientific advisory committees, he has played a big part in shaping Britain's liberal stem-cell policy. While recently passed legislation restricts publicly funded scientists in the U.S. to working on a handful of existing stem-cell lines--colonies of cells--HFEA-licensed researchers in Britain are free to cultivate their own. Smith, who receives funding from Britain's largest scientific charity, the Wellcome Trust, as well as from Britain's Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council, says he will deposit any new lines he derives in Britain's soon-to-be-created stem-cell bank, another world first. If Smith is successful, Britain is likely to maintain its lead in this critical area of research for many years.