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7 October 2015

Aziz Sancar, TWAS Fellow, wins Nobel

The question of how DNA repairs itself is central to the understanding of cancer and other human disease. For his work in this field, TWAS Fellow Aziz Sancar has been named a co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Aziz Sancar, a Turkish-born chemist elected to TWAS in 1994, is one of three scientists named to share the 2015 Nobel Prize in chemistry "for mechanistic studies of gene repair". He is the seventh TWAS Fellow to win the world's highest honour for discoveries in chemistry.

Sancar's research has focused on how DNA can repair itself. He discovered enzymes which can recognize mutations caused by ultraviolet radiation and then cut the DNA to remove the damaged genetic code. His initial discoveries at Yale University in the United States focused on E. coli bacteria; more recently, at the University of North Carolina in the United States, he detailed the workings of this DNA repair in humans.

Sancar is the first native of Turkey to win a Nobel Prize in science. "I am of course honoured to get this recognition for all the work I've done over the years," he said Wednesday (07 October) in an interview released by the Nobel organization. "But I'm also proud for my family and for my native country and my adopted country, and especially for Turkey it's quite important."

Sharing the prize with Sancar are two chemists who have made pioneering discoveries in gene repair: Swedish native Tomas Lindahl of the Francis Crick Institute and Clare Hall Laboratory in Hertfordshire, UK, and American Paul Modrich of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Duke University School of Medicine, also in North Carolina.

"Systematic work" by the three researchers "has made a decisive contribution to the understanding of how the living cell functions, as well as providing knowledge about the molecular causes of several hereditary diseases and about mechanisms behind both cancer development and aging,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in announcing the prizes.

DNA is inherently unstable. Millions of times every day, cells reproduce; DNA is copied and shared with each new cell. But errors can occur in this process, or damage can occur from external sources such as UV radiation or carcinogenic substances.

The three winners "mapped, at a molecular level, how cells repair damaged DNA and safeguard the genetic information," said the Nobel press release. "Their work has provided fundamental knowledge of how a living cell functions and is, for instance, used for the development of new cancer treatments."

Sancar, 69, was born in Savur, a small town in Mardin Province, which borders Syria in southeastern Turkey. He was the seventh of eight children. “My parents were both illiterate,” he said in a 2005 profile published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), “but they valued the importance of education and did their best to ensure that all of their children would receive some education.”

He received his M.D. in 1969 from the Istanbul Medical School in Turkey. At the University of Texas at Dallas he studied molecular biology, receiving a master's degree in 1975 and a PhD in 1977.

In a 1994 letter supporting Sancar's election to TWAS, chemistry Professor John E. Hearst of the University of California at Berkeley praised him as "a remarkably well-disciplined and hard-working scientist." Further, Hearst wrote, Sancar "has the well-tested characteristics of an outstanding teacher."

In another letter supporting the TWAS nomination, Stanford University biology Professor Philip C. Hanawalt wrote that Sancar achieved "first-rate research on multiple fronts". And, Hanawalt added: "He works harder than almost anyone I know and he avoids going to many meetings because he prefers to stay in the laboratory. I feel that he would be a strong contender as the scientist who has contributed the most to the field of DNA repair in this decade."

Sancar and his spouse, Gwen, who is also an accomplished researcher and teacher, founded the Aziz and Gwen Sancar Foundation to promote Turkish culture and support Turkish students in the United States.

TWAS now counts 16 Nobel laureates among its 1,134 members. Other TWAS Fellows who have won the Nobel in chemistry are: Yuan Tseh Lee, Taiwan, China, in 1986; Jean-Marie P. Lehn, France, in 1987; Robert Huber, Germany, in 1988; Paul Josef Crutzen, Germany, in 1995; Mario Molina, Mexico, in 1995; and Ahmed Hassan Zewail, Egypt/US, 1999.

Edward W. Lempinen

Gisela Isten and Sean Treacy contributed to this report

 

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