Duke, UNC Scientists Share Nobel

Oct 7, 2015

Dr. Aziz Sancar.
Credit Dave DeWitt

Aziz Sancar and Paul Modrich have both devoted their professional lives to DNA repair. That might seem like a small enough area of research that, if two of the most important scientists in the field live and work a few miles apart, they would be frequent collaborators.

They are not, having published only three papers together.

Sancar, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine, explains: “Paul Modrich has been an outstanding colleague and friend over the years and actually he may not know this, even though we all hate Duke, I have been nominating him, for the last 10 years, for the Nobel Prize.

Modrich, a professor of biochemistry at Duke University, has studied mismatch repair, or how damage occurs as cells go through replication. Sancar has mapped the mechanism that cells use to repair light-damaged DNA.

Their research is crucial in the ongoing fight against cancer.

“They’ve been extraordinary colleagues and scientists,” said Michael Kastan, the executive director of the Duke University Cancer Institute. “And in addition to their contributions, they are also wonderful human beings.”

Both are also clearly uncomfortable in the spotlight. Sancar thanked his wife, a fellow researcher, and his mentor, students, and colleagues. Born in a town on the Turkey/Syria border, he also spoke about that region’s recent struggles.

“I hope that we all work toward peaceful solutions, scientific approaches to our problems, rather than concentrating on things that divide us and causes these tremendous tragedies in the world,” he said. “Especially in the part of the world that I come from.”

This morning, Sancar’s lab was inundated with congratulatory phone calls from well-wishers in Turkey.

“Knowing his background and his research and his history, it’s an inspiration to work with him because you know how hard he’s worked to get where he is,” said Michael Kemp, a research faculty member who works in Sancar’s lab. “It inspires you to work hard to try to find the biggest thing you can to make some big discovery like he has.”

Sancar has been at UNC-Chapel Hill since 1982. He’s the second Nobel Prize winner in the school’s history.

Dr. Paul Modrich, Duke University.
Credit Duke University

Paul Modrich is Duke University’s second Nobel Prize winner for chemistry in four years. He’s equally humble, and likely happy he’s still on vacation in the New Hampshire woods.

He called into the celebratory event and expressed his shock at receiving the award, and his appreciation for his colleagues.

“I have to say that this acknowledgment is shared by the many graduate students and post-doctoral fellows who are responsible for much of the work,” he said.

A Nobel Prize is a crowning achievement for an individual scientist, but it’s equally important to a university. It affects the overall reputation, faculty recruitment, and fundraising.

And, in this case, it displays a growing collaboration between Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill.

“It’s a special moment for two very proud institutions and I think that we love the fact that we are connected at this moment,” said Carol Folt, the chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill. “Because we make history by being connected, in history.”

Sanjar and Modrich will receive their Nobel Prizes in Stockholm this December.