Genome work a far cry from O.B. High days

Alex Smith and one of his twin sons

Alex Smith and one of his twin sons

Alex Smith enjoys success in the U.S., but still misses hanging at the Tea Party

As a kid in Oak Bay, Alex Smith dreamed of becoming a marine biologist.

“We would take the kayaks to the end of the street and out on the water to see the whales. I always imagined myself doing something on the water, but once you get to college you change your aspirations.”

Smith, 38, now lives in Arlington, Md. and works for Human Genome Sciences Inc.

Benylsta, a drug the company developed to treat lupus – the first new treatment in almost 60 years for the disease, which attacks the autoimmune system – was approved for sale this month by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Smith was the process engineer on the project, overseeing the infrastructure that ensured clean production of 20,000-litre batches of the new drug.

At Oak Bay High, Smith was a talented rugby and cricket player who played almost every weekend at Windsor Park.

Academically, he wasn’t particularly interested in pure science, despite the fact his dad, Bill, who still lives in Oak Bay with wife Liz, was a mathematician who worked for IBM and Microsoft.

Nevertheless, following graduation Smith headed off to the University of Maryland College Park to study computer science. In his first year, however, he became interested in human genome research.

“It was new and different and I was intrigued about the possibilities. At the time people thought it would be the key to everything,” he said in a telephone interview.

The university had a bioprocess facility where students could work on projects for small start-up companies. Smith did just that, working for HGS in the last two years of his degree program.

Bill Smith was flabbergasted when his son switched his focus at college to microbiology.

“I thought you couldn’t pick a harder subject,” Bill said. When Alex came home for visits, Bill tried to take a peek at his son’s texts. “I was interested in what DNA was all about, but I couldn’t get through the first 10 pages.”

HGS hired Smith full-time upon his graduation in 2000 and he’s been working for them since.

“Over the 11-year period, we’ve had some ups and down. We’ve had drugs go through clinical trials. Some worked moderately well, some weren’t successful and so it’s nice to come through with one that is,” he said.

Smith is married and has two-year-old twin boys. He is working on an MBA and last year competed in his first Ironman triathlon competition. He remembers his Oak Bay childhood fondly.

“It felt safe everywhere you go. I still miss the Oak Bay Tea Party.”

vmoreau@oakbaynews.com