UNC, Duke Scientists' Nobels Double NC's Active Laureates

  Paul Modrich — Photo courtesy of Duke University
  Aziz Sancar — UNC photo

North Carolina today doubled its stellar core of actively working Nobel Laureates when the Royal Swedish Academy announced the winners of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Duke University researcher Paul Modrich, and Aziz Sancar of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will share the $960,000 cash award and the global adulation, for a lifelong career combining luck and genius, with Swedish scientist Tomas Lindahl.

The three were recognized for their pivotal work in exposing how cells repair damaged DNA, which is opening doors to promising new ways to treat cancer and other maladies.

Modrich and Sancar join UNC’s Oliver Smithies and Duke’s Robert Lefkowitz as actively working Nobel Laureates in North Carolina. Smithies won in 2007 and Lefkowitz in 2012.

Modrich, 69, is an investigator at the Duke arm of the multi-campus Howard Hughes Medical Institute, as well as the James B. Duke professor of biochemistry and a member of the Duke Cancer Institute.

In 1985 Modrich was one of the first recipients of a research grant from what was then the newly established North Carolina Biotechnology Center – at $9,600 an important jumpstart leading to the thousand-fold cash prize he’ll soon share with Sancar and Lindahl. With inflation, that $9,600 grant in 1985 would be about $21,250 in today’s dollars.

Lindahl, 77, is an emeritus group leader at Francis Crick Institute and emeritus director of Cancer Research UK at Clare Hall Laboratory in Britain. In the 1970s he first hypothesized that because DNA degradation rates varied, some kind of repair mechanism might be involved.

Sancar, a 69-year-old Turkish-American, is a Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry at the UNC School of Medicine. He joined UNC’s department of biochemistry and biophysics in 1982 after research work at Yale University that mapped the mechanism that cells use to repair DNA damaged by ultraviolet light.

Modrich, meanwhile, showed how the cell corrects errors when DNA is replicated during cell division, a process known as mismatch repair.

“Now we can 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 in a May news release from UNC. “Out of six billion base pairs, pick out a spot and we’ll tell you how it is repaired.”

When DNA is damaged, cells use many enzymes to cut the strand of DNA and remove the damaged fragment. Then, other enzymes repair the original DNA so that the cells can function properly.

The trio will receive their Nobel Prizes on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.

For a look at other Nobel Prize winners with North Carolina connections, click here.

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