Last week, the University added another esteemed alumnus to its list of Nobel Laureates. Aziz Sancar, who studied at Yale as a postgraduate fellow during the late ’70s in the Department of Therapeutic Radiology, was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Sancar’s recognition by the Nobel Committee stems from his research in mapping “at a molecular level, how cells repair damaged DNA and safeguard the genetic information,” according to the Nobel Prize’s official website. This research was conducted in Yale Medical School’s Biochemistry lab, where Sancar worked under the supervision of therapeutic radiology professor W. Dean Rupp, Jr. According to Sancar’s peers, his work ethic, coupled with Yale’s research faculty, enabled the development of new and impactful scientific developments in the field of DNA research.
Sancar solved the chemical nuances of three DNA repair mechanisms. Senior research scientist in therapeutic radiology Douglas Brash, who was a peer of Sancar’s, explained that although DNA may become damaged for a variety of reasons, this damage should not be confused with DNA mutation. A DNA mutation consists of genetic material that is still “perfectly normal,” but damaged DNA is abnormal and requires correction, Brash added. If the DNA is damaged, cells will extract the mistake -in a process known as DNA excision repair. Sancar’s work has mapped the pathways by which a cell repairs this damaged DNA and safeguards the genetic material. His work can be used in the development of new cancer medications.
Sancar, who grew up in a small town in rural Turkey, “was a legendarily hard worker,” Brash said. Sancar did not return request for comment.
Sancar’s interest in DNA research came at a time of burgeoning progress for the field. Not long after Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA’s double helix formation, Yale’s Department of Radiobiology was founded by molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor Paul Flanders. Rupp, who ran a lab in the Department of Radiobiology, was working on gene cloning when Sancar joined his team.
“He applied to my laboratory to come as a postdoctoral fellow and I looked at his resume and because he did have experience in cloning genes, at least one gene in particular, it seemed like a good fit for my laboratory,” Rupp said.
Rupp added that he had a significant impact on Sancar’s education. Central to Sancar’s selection as the 2015 Nobel Prize winner was a paper entitled “Mechanistic Studies of DNA Repair,” Rupp explained. The research for the report was conducted entirely in Rupp’s Yale-based laboratory. Sancar later went on to conduct more research at the University of North Carolina.
But Sancar’s experience at Yale set the stage for a lifetime of contributions to the biological and medical sciences.
According to Peter Glazer, chair of therapeutic radiology, Sancar’s research has had significant implications in several practical areas of medicine.
“This knowledge has contributed to the development of cancer and aging,” Glazer said. “It’s also important to understanding how certain cancer therapies work and helps the development of new cancer therapies.”
Sancar told the New York Times that he first realized he wanted to be a biochemist after taking a class during his second year of medical school.
“I come from a small town in Turkey and so everything was basically unknown to me,” Sancar said in an interview with the Times. “Being exposed to that was very exciting.”
According to the Times, Sancar, who is the first Turkish scientist to win a Nobel Prize, received the call from Stockholm notifying him of his award at 5 a.m.
Sancar is currently a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In December he will travel to Stockholm to accept officially the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.