Skip to main content

Aziz Sancar, MD, PhD, the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the UNC School of Medicine has been awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his groundbreaking work in mapping DNA repair.

Aziz Sancar, MD, PhD (photo courtesy of Max Englund/UNC)
Aziz Sancar, MD, PhD (photo courtesy of Max Englund/UNC)

“My wife picked up the phone and told me the person on the line said this is very important,” Sancar said. “So I took the phone and they told me I won the Nobel Prize. I was very surprised. I had been sleeping; this was 5 a.m. So I was pretty incoherent. But I thanked them and said, ‘It’s an incredible honor.’”

Sancar, who is from Turkey and has been a professor at UNC since 1982, earned the award for his work on mapping the cellular mechanisms that underlie DNA repair, which occurs every single minute of the day in response to damage caused by outside forces, such as ultraviolet radiation and other environmental factors. In particular, Sancar mapped nucleotide excision repair, which is vital to DNA subjected to UV damage. When this repair system is defective, people exposed to sunlight develop skin cancer. Also, Sancar showed that other substances can damage the nucleotide excision repair system. His work provides the crucial basic knowledge necessary to develop better treatments that protect against DNA damage, which can result in cancer.

In addition, Sancar and his colleagues discovered how the common cancer drug cisplatin and others like it damage the DNA of cancer cells. This finding has led to further research to figure out how to better target and kill cancer cells.

“This award means a great deal to me and my lab,” said Sancar, who is a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. “We’ve been working hard for many years and I think we’ve made significant contributions to our field. It’s been a great team effort.”

Sancar’s work dates back to 1974, when he was a graduate student at the University of Texas. The most recent work to come out of his lab was accomplished earlier this year when his team created a DNA repair map of the entire human genome.

“With this map, we can now say to a fellow scientist, ‘tell us the gene you’re interested in or any spot on the genome, and we’ll tell you how it is repaired,’” Sancar said. “Out of six billion base pairs, pick out a spot and we’ll tell you how it is repaired.”

Sancar shares this award with two others: Tomas Lindahl of the Francis Crick Institute and Clare Hall Laboratory in Great Britain, and Paul Modrich of Duke University School of Medicine and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

William L. Roper, MD, MPH, dean of the UNC School of Medicine, said, “It’s a tremendous honor for Dr. Sancar, this recognition of his amazing scientific accomplishment. And it’s a special day for us as a university because this is the second Nobel Prize awarded to a faculty member of UNC and the School of Medicine.

In 2007, Oliver Smithies, PhD, Weatherspoon Eminent Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

“It’s worthy of note that today we share this with colleagues at Duke,” Roper said. “This is a great day for science in the world and science in the Triangle region of North Carolina.”

Norman Sharpless, MD, director of UNC Lineberger and Wellcome Distinguished Professor in Cancer Research, added, “This is a well-deserved honor. Aziz has studied the fundamental biochemistry of DNA repair at UNC for over 30 years, and his work has greatly enhanced our understanding of the basic biology of cancer and aging. He is a true basic scientist and has been a wonderful friend, mentor, and colleague to scientists across UNC.”

The National Institutes of Health funded this research.

Story Courtesy of media contact: Mark Derewicz, UNC School of Medicine, 984-974-1915.