George Smith hates to lose. A Harvard Business School graduate, Smith founded one of Southern California's largest, most prominent real estate investment banking firms and will receive an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University next week. Still, he smarts a little from a grievance endured at Hamilton High more than 50 years ago.
"I graduated second in my class to a home economics major," said the 70-year-old real estate guru and father of four. "She had one B in three years and I had two. My physics teacher graded me at a different level than anyone else because she knew I was going on to Cal Tech."
He holds no grudge. And this small injustice would help to fuel rather than blunt his drive to succeed, which has served Smith well in building a firm that exceeded $2 billion in commercial financing last year. He never imagined that he'd also apply this indomitable will another way: in a fight to save his daughter's life.
Becca Smith was 5 years old in 1983 when she was diagnosed with Ataxia Telangiectasia (A-T), a rare, progressively degenerative neurological disease for which there is no cure. Children with A-T have difficulty walking and with balance, and are more susceptible to infection and certain cancers. Smith and his wife, Pam, were told that Becca was unlikely to reach her 20th birthday.
Although devastated, Smith reacted in typical fashion: "I felt that if I could raise money and pick the right researchers, I would be able to make a difference -- maybe prolong Becca's life and perhaps find a cure for the disorder."
In this pre-Internet era, the Smiths spent a year seeking scientists involved in A-T research, only to be told that A-T was "an orphan disease" that had no funding.
Then, in their own backyard, they discovered Dr. Richard Gatti, who was studying A-T in a makeshift lab at UCLA. Smith provided Gatti with an annual stipend. Several months later, Smith made a similar arrangement with Dr. Yossi Shiloh, a young Israeli researcher at Tel Aviv University.
In 1988, Gatti's UCLA lab narrowed the location of the gene responsible for A-T to a specific region of one chromosome. Seven years later, Shiloh's Tel Aviv lab identified the exact gene.
To help with the financial burden of their pledges, the Smiths established the Ataxia Telangiectasia Medical Research Foundation (A-TMRF). Pam initiated an annual fundraising luncheon attended by friends from the Project Council at the Museum of Contemporary Art. George started a real estate luncheon that now attracts more than 1,500 annually.
On Sept. 21, Smith will hold the 11th annual George Smith Partners Real Estate Luncheon at the Westin Century Plaza Hotel, where Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and president of Tel Aviv University, will present Smith with an honorary doctorate.
Smith estimates that the nonprofit he started has supported more than $10 million in research worldwide. In October of last year, the Smiths endowed the Rebecca Smith Chair in A-T Research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
"My lab's first grant support was from the A-TMRF," said Shiloh, who has earned worldwide recognition for his A-T research. "It has been the major and most stable source of support of our work."
Shiloh now refers to the A-T gene as "a sentry at the gate of genome stability," because the protein it produces essentially sounds the alarm to report damage to cellular DNA, particularly broken DNA.
A-T patients produce little or none of this protein, which explains why their symptoms affect so many systems in the body.
Ironically, this "orphan disease" is now proving to have impact well beyond children affected by A-T. Research may provide insights into other neuro-degenerative (brain and nerve function) diseases, deficiencies of the immune system, cancer and aging. One in 100 people carry a defective copy of the A-T gene, which may also be associated with higher risk of breast cancer.
At UCLA, Gatti's work currently focuses on potential treatments.
"The Rebecca Smith Chair for A-T has come at a time when we can -- for the first time -- envision a therapeutic approach that is achievable," Gatti said. "I project that in three to five years, we will have clinical trials."
Becca, now 27, is completing her associate of arts degree at Moorpark College. Although she has difficulty walking and has slurred speech, she has not been plagued with the infections typical of so many A-T patients.
Smith's own health has sorely tested his resilience over the last five years. He has endured kidney disease, the implantation of four stents in his heart and treatment for bone-marrow cancer. He now undergoes dialysis three times weekly.
"I'm feeling really good now," he said. "My life is back to normal. I just have an inconvenience," he said, referring to the 12 hours a week of dialysis, during which he returns calls and e-mails.
Smith said his daughter's illness changed the priorities in his life: "I tell people, 'Be involved in something. The more you give, the more you get from it.'"
For information about the Sept. 21 George Smith Partners' Real Estate Luncheon, call (310) 557-8336 or visit www.gsparthers.com/at.
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