Scientists win Nobel chemistry award for work on DNA repair
Three scientists from Sweden, the U.S. and Turkey won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for showing how cells repair damaged DNA, work that’s inspired the development of new cancer treatments.
Swedish scientist Tomas Lindahl, American Paul Modrich and U.S.Turkish national Aziz Sancar shared the 8 million Swedish kronor (about US$960,000) award for research done in the 1970s and ‘80s.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said their work on DNA repair had provided “fundamental knowledge” about how cells function and shed light on the mechanisms behind both cancer and aging.
Lindahl, 77, is an emeritus group leader at Francis Crick Institute and Emeritus director of Cancer Research UK at Clare Hall Laboratory in the UK.
Modrich, born in 1946, is an investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute and professor at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina.
Sancar, 69, is a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He is the second Turk to win a Nobel Prize after novelist Orhan Pamuk was awarded the literature prize in 2006.
“I’m sure there will be (celebrations in Turkey),” Sancar said in an interview published on the Nobel Foundation’s website. “Yes, they’ve been asking over the years and I was tired of hearing `when are you going to get the Nobel Prize?’ so I’m glad for my country as well.”
Speaking by phone to a news conference in Stockholm, Lindahl said “it was a surprise” to win the award.
Paul Modrich’s wife, Vickers Burdett, told The Associated Press by phone that they were on vacation in New Hampshire.
“Wow! I can’t express it any better than that. Awesome!” she said in reaction to the announcement, which she called “a total shock.”
The laureates broke new ground by mapping and explaining how a cell safeguards its DNA — the molecule that contains our genes. Our DNA is constantly under assault from ultraviolet rays from the sun and carcinogenic substances.
But it was thought to be a stable molecule until the 1970s when Lindahl showed that it decays at a rate that seemed incompatible with human life.
He realized that there must a repair mechanism, opening a new field of research, the academy said.
Working at Yale University, Sancar mapped the mechanism that cells use to repair UV-damaged DNA. Modrich showed how the cell corrects errors when DNA is replicated during cell division, a process known as mismatch repair.
The findings are significant for cancer research, because cancer cells are kept alive by DNA repair mechanisms. Researchers are now looking at ways to destroy the repair mechanisms within the cancer cells to kill them, academy member Peter Brzezinski said.
The academy highlighted one such drug that’s already on the market: olaparib, which is used to fight ovarian cancer.
The model of a DNA stands on a desk during a press conference to announce the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2015 on Wednesday, Oct. 7, at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden.