A Kurdish biochemist from Turkey was among three scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on mapping part of the DNA repair system in cancer cells, the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden, announced October 7.
Dr Aziz Sancar, the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, was honored alongside Tomas Lindahl and Paul Modrich.
The Nobel Prize committee says that the three laureates work “has provided fundamental knowledge of how a living cell functions and is, for instance, used for the development of new cancer treatments.”
Sancar, who is from the south-eastern town of Savar, Mardin province, was awarded for his work in mapping the cells that repair ultraviolet damage to DNA.
Sancar spoke of how he received the call early in the morning at his home while he was sleeping.
“It was 5 am so I was a bit incoherent,” said Sancar, who is also a member of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. “But I managed to thank him and told them it was an incredible honour.”
“Their work has provided fundamental knowledge of how a living cell functions and is, for instance, used for the development of new cancer treatments,” the committee said in a statement.
“I did not expect [this], I am very amazed and still amazed,” Sancar, 69, said in an interview with the Nobel media center.
Sancar, the first Turkish-born scientist to win the prize, said, “This award is especially very important for Turkey.”
In the early 1970s, scientists believed that DNA was an extremely stable molecule, but Tomas Lindahl demonstrated that DNA decays at a rate that ought to have made the development of life on Earth impossible.
This insight led him to discover a molecular machinery, base excision repair, which constantly counteracts the collapse of our DNA.
Sancar has mapped nucleotide excision repair, the mechanism that cells use to repair UV damage to DNA. People born with defects in this repair system will develop skin cancer if they are exposed to sunlight.
The cell also uses nucleotide excision repair to correct defects caused by mutagenic substances, among other things.
Paul Modrich has demonstrated how the cell corrects errors that occur when DNA is replicated during cell division.
This mechanism, mismatch repair, reduces the error frequency during DNA replication by about a thousand fold. Congenital defects in mismatch repair are known, for example, to cause a hereditary variant of colon cancer.
The trio will share the 8 million Swedish kronor (£630,000) prize and receive diplomas and gold medals in a ceremony on December 10.