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Nobel Laureate Chemistry 2015: Aziz Sancar

aziz sancar photo jenny öhman
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
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