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article imageTrio win Nobel Chemistry Prize for DNA repair work

By Pia Ohlin (AFP)     Oct 7, 2015 in Science

Sweden's Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich of the United States and Aziz Sancar, a Turkish-American, won the 2015 Nobel Chemistry Prize on Wednesday for work on how cells repair damaged DNA.

The three opened a dazzling frontier in medicine by unveiling how the body repairs DNA mutations that can cause sickness and contribute to ageing, the Nobel jury said.

"Their systematic work has made a decisive contribution to the understanding of how the living cell functions, as well as providing knowledge about the molecular causes of several hereditary diseases and about mechanisms behind both cancer development and ageing," the panel said.

DNA -- deoxyribonucleic acid -- is the chemical code for making and sustaining life.

Cells divide, or replicate, billions of times through our lifetime.

Molecular machines seek to copy the code perfectly, but random slipups in their work can cause the daughter cells to die or malfunction. DNA can also be damaged by strong sunlight and other environmental factors.

But there is a swarm of proteins -- a molecular repair kit -- designed to monitor the process. It proof-reads the code and repairs damage.

The three were lauded for mapping these processes, starting with Lindahl, who identified so-called repair enzymes -- the basics in the toolbox.

- Eternal life? -

Sancar discovered the mechanisms used by cells to fix damage by ultraviolet radiation. Modrich laid bare a complex DNA-mending process called mismatch repair.

"The basic research carried out by the 2015 Nobel laureates in chemistry has not only deepened our knowledge of how we function, but could also lead to the development of lifesaving treatments," the Nobel committee said.

The three co-winners of the Nobel Chemistry Prize opened a dazzling frontier in medicine by unveilin...
The three co-winners of the Nobel Chemistry Prize opened a dazzling frontier in medicine by unveiling how the body repairs DNA mutations that can cause sickness and contribute to ageing, the judging panel says
Jonathan Nackstrand, AFP

With cells able to repair themselves, one could ponder the dizzying possibility that humans could go on living forever.

"No, I don't believe in eternal life," Lindahl, who is based in Britain, told reporters by telephone at the prize announcement.

He said scientists were increasingly turning their attention away from curing diseases such as cancer and instead looking for chronic treatments.

"We are getting away a little bit (from) trying to find a cure for everything, and convert diseases to something we can live with," he said.

"It's difficult to cure diabetes but we have good ways of treating diabetic patients, and I think with regard to DNA damage that will be an increasingly important aspect."

DNA repair researcher Nora Goosen of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands told AFP scientists were looking at targeted attacks on cancer.

Sweden's Tomas Lindahl  emeritus director of Cancer Research UK  at Clare Hall Laboratory in Po...
Sweden's Tomas Lindahl, emeritus director of Cancer Research UK, at Clare Hall Laboratory in Potters Bar after he was jointly awarded the Nobel Chemistry Prize on October 7, 2016
Justin Tallis, AFP

She said the same mechanism by which cells repair DNA damage can also make them resist the effects of chemotherapy. By understanding how the cell repair system works, doctors hope they will one day be able to instruct cancerous cells not to fight against treatment, thus making chemotherapy more effective, she explained.

Other scientists heaped praise on Lindahl for his pioneering work.

They included Britain's prestigious Royal Society, of which he is a fellow, and British biochemist Sir Tim Hunt, who was a co-winner of the 2001 Nobel for cell duplication.

- Chose studies over football -

"This is wonderful news!" Hunt told the Science Media Centre (SMC) in London. "Tomas was my boss for almost 20 years, a real scientists' scientist... (a) richly-deserved prize."

It is the seventh time DNA research has been honoured with a Nobel prize. The first was in 1962, for the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Lindahl, Modrich and Sancar share the prize sum of eight million Swedish kronor (around $950,000 or 855,000 euros).

Lindahl, 77, is the emeritus director of Cancer Research UK at Clare Hall Laboratory in Britain.

Modrich was born in 1946 and grew up in a small town in northern New Mexico, which instilled in him a love of the natural world.

"There was huge biological diversity around me," he said in a statement on Duke University, where he is a professor of biochemistry.

"Within five miles, the ecology can change dramatically -- it was very thought provoking."

In 1963, his father, who was the local high school biology teacher, gave him very important advice, he recalled: "You should learn about this DNA stuff."

Sancar, 69, was meanwhile born in the small Turkish town of Savur. He could have become a professional football player -- Turkey's national junior team courted him to become their goalkeeper -- but he chose to focus on his academic studies instead.

After working as a doctor in the countryside, he resumed his biochemistry studies at the age of 27, and then went to the University of Texas in Dallas.

He is now a professor of biochemistry and biochemics at University of North Carolina in the US.

He told the Nobel Foundation he was stunned by his win.

"I wasn't expecting it at all. I was very surprised."

The Nobel awards week continues with the announcements for the two most closely-watched prizes: on Thursday the winner of the literature prize will be announced, followed by the peace prize on Friday.

The economics prize wraps up this year's Nobel season on Monday.

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