Simon Fraser University

Yale doctor wins Wright prize

Mar 06, 2003 , vol. 26, no. 5

By Roberta Staley

Charles Greer (left) has devoted a lifetime to sniffing out how the olfactory system works, earning international respect and acclaim over the past two decades.

His most recent accolade comes from SFU. Dr. Greer is the 2002 recipient of Allison Linville's R.H. Wright award in olfactory research, an honour he was “stunned and thrilled” to receive.

Past winners of the prestigious award include many of the world's most renowned olfactory researchers. “The people who have received this before me have been among my mentors and role models, so to be included in that group is great,” says Dr. Greer, who will give a public lecture called the Sense of Smell on March 20 at 7 p.m. at Harbour Centre. He is also holding research seminars March 18 at SFU and at UBC March 19.

Dr. Greer's research has focused upon how olfaction develops in the embryo. Dr. Greer is also widely recognized for his work with the electron microscope, and studies of the development of the olfactory pathway at the molecular level.

The olfactory system is an enigma, says Dr. Greer, a Yale University school of medicine professor of neuroscience. Olfactory receptor cell axons - the long thread of a nerve cell that conducts electrical impulses between cells - are able to replicate, unlike any other central nervous system cells, such as those in the spinal cord. Olfactory receptor cells, in fact, die and are replaced every two months. And they do it perfectly, over and over again, says Dr. Greer. “Bananas always smell like bananas.”

Dr. Greer's findings have practical applications, some of them potentially groundbreaking. His laboratory has isolated the cells from the olfactory pathway that support the replication or growth of the olfactory receptor axons and implanted them in animals with spinal cord lesions. The introduction of these cells stimulated injured axons in the spinal cord to grow again. This remarkable finding, says Dr. Greer, “was unexpected.”

The award was established in 1984 by the late Frank Allison Linville of General Monitors Inc. to recognize British Columbian chemist Robert Wright, whose research contributed greatly to understanding the sense of smell. Recipients are given a $5,000 cash award and a $25,000 research grant. The selection committee is comprised of the four most recent R.H. Wright Award winners.