Aziz Sancar’s love for the world of chemistry led him to the other side of the Atlantic and to the Nobel Prize winning breakthroughs of mapping DNA repair.
At 5 a.m. one particular October morning Aziz Sancar and his wife were awoken by an unexpected call. The person on the other end of the line told him he had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his and his fellow Nobel Prize winner’s pioneering work in mapping DNA repair. Barely awake from his sleep, the newly appointed Laureate happily replied with gratefulness about this “incredible honor.” The news was a joyful surprise also for his colleagues at the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, at the University of North Carolina (UNC), where Sancar has been a professor since 1982.
“I was absolutely thrilled and overjoyed,” says Leslie V. Parise, Professor and Chair at the department. “Dr. Sancar had not received the Lasker Award, which is often a lead up to the Nobel Prize, so the news came as a surprise to me. However, Dr. Sancar had been told by others that if a Nobel Prize was ever given in the area of DNA repair that he was certainly at the top of the list and most deserving.”
Entering the world of biochemistry
Aziz Sancar grew up in a farming family of eight children in Savur, a small Turkish town in the Mardin province. Neither of his parents had received an education but they were careful to ensure that their children would get one. Thanks to an outstanding teacher Sancar fell in love with the world of chemistry. He started out studying medicine and during medical school he became more familiar with DNA. Its marvelous ability to repair itself ignited the dream of becoming a biochemist. He spent some time working as a doctor but it didn’t take long before Sancar realized that the mystery of the body’s molecules held a greater appeal for him.
“I started out as a medical doctor and certainly during my practice my passion then was to treat patients. I realized that treating patients did not involve discoveries and that was when I started doing research,” Aziz Sancar says.
He joined one of the top laboratories in the United States, the lab of Dr. Rupert at the University of Dallas, Texas. Sancar wanted to find out more about one fascinating phenomenon that Dr. Rupert had studied: when bacteria are exposed to deadly doses of UV radiation they can recover if they are illuminated with visible blue light. Aziz Sancar was able to clone the gene for the enzyme that repairs UV-damaged DNA, photolyase, and also succeeded in getting bacteria to over-produce the enzyme. Later, at Yale University he was able to map nucleotide excision repair, a system that is important for repairing damage from the sun, cigarette smoke and other environmental causes. This explains how people can survive as long as they do from environmental stresses. However, this same repair system is targeted in cancer cells by chemotherapeutic agents in the attempt to kill cancer cells. The findings made by Sancar provide crucial basic knowledge needed to develop better treatments.
“His work on the mapping of nucleotide excision repair can be used in future studies to determine how well chemotherapeutic agents are working in specific cancers at specific sites and how to make them work better,” explains Leslie V. Parise. “This work will also expand basic research to allow him and other scientists to determine how other molecules in the nucleus of the cell effects the repair process at specific sites.”
When Sancar had time to return to further studies of the photolyase enzyme, he uncovered the mechanism responsible for reviving the bacteria. In addition, he helped to demonstrate that a human equivalent to photolyase helps humans set their circadian clock. Sancar and his colleagues at the UNC laboratory are now investigating the connection between the circadian cycle and DNA repair and how disruption of the circadian cycle might affect the susceptibility of mice and humans to cancers.
Sancar’s curiosity has been an important driving force that has made science his passion, says Leslie V. Parise. When it comes to his work she says that Dr. Sancar is described as being “very focused and intense”. He also has “high standards and expects excellence from those who work with him.”
Hard rewarding work
After the writer Orhan Pamuk, who was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature a decade ago, Aziz Sancar is the second Turk to win a Nobel Prize. He has also become a role model for young scientists in Turkey, showing them that “they can accomplish important contributions to science,” as Sancar said in an interview with The Associated Press. After his many years working in the field of research, Aziz Sancar has also gained insight about what a career in science means and provides some guidance for aspiring scientists.
“My advice to new generations who want to do science is to realize that making discoveries gives personal satisfaction beyond anything you can imagine. But it also takes hard work.”
Born: September 8 1946, in Savur, Turkey.
Family: Wife Gwen Boles Sancar, Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of North Carolina.
Position: Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the UNC School of Medicine.
Education: M.D., University of Istanbul. PhD, University of Texas at Dallas.