Carolina scientist Aziz Sancar awarded Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Aziz Sancar, a biochemist who has exquisitely mapped part of the DNA repair system in cancer cells, has been honored this year with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden announced Oct. 7.

Sancar, the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the UNC School of Medicine, received the call at 5 a.m. at his home, while he was sleeping.

“It was 5 a.m. 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 honor.”

Sancar, who 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 due to outside forces, such as ultraviolet radiation and other environmental factors. In particular, Sancar mapped nucleotide excision repair, which is vital to UV damage to DNA. When this repair system is defective, people exposed to sunlight develop skin cancer.

Sancar’s work dates back to 1974, when he was a graduate student at the University of Texas. The most recent work 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.

“Today, we have the historic opportunity to celebrate and congratulate our Carolina colleague, Dr. Aziz Sancar, on his 2015 Nobel Prize for Chemistry – the pinnacle reward for a scientist whose prolific career has made a huge impact on the well-being of people around the world,” said Chancellor Carol L. Folt. “This is a very special day for UNC-Chapel Hill and we are honored to share this forever moment with Duke University – two institutions with a long history of making history. It is a remarkable achievement for the vibrant Triangle region and the State of North Carolina.”

Bill Roper, Dean of the UNC School of Medicine, said, “It’s a tremendous honor for Dr. Sancar, this recognition of his amazing scientific accomplishment.”

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

Norman Sharpless, director of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center 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 has supported Dr. Sancar since 1982 with $24,353,827 in research dollars. Almost all of the NIH funding is from the National Institute for General Medical Sciences.

Story Mark Derewicz, UNC Health Care, and Thania Benios, Office of Communications and Public Affairs

Photo by Max Englund, UNC School of Medicine

Published October 7, 2015