Prize is first for university graduate, native of Turkey
For the first time in university history, a Nobel Prize has been awarded to an alumnus.
Aziz Sancar, who graduated from UTD with a degree in molecular and cell biology in 1977 and is currently a member of the biochemistry department at the University of North Carolina, was part of a team that was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Oct. 7.
The group’s work focused on how DNA is mended by a process called nucleotide excision repair. Their research found that cells continuously repair damaged DNA from carcinogens like UV radiation.
This finding, which has potential applications for cancer treatments, disproves the notion scientists have maintained for years that DNA is an extremely stable molecule.
“They’re also important in cancer treatment because many of the anti-cancer drugs do damage DNA and whether cancer cells can repair it or not could influence how cancer is treated,” Sancar said in an interview with nobelprize.org.
During his time at UTD, Sancar made an immediate impact on the school’s then relatively new chemistry department.
Claud Rupert, Sancar’s Ph.D. advisor, said the student displayed a tremendous work ethic.
“I’d say, conservatively, he worked 90 hours a week,” he said. “He came in here and nothing else existed but his work. If he wasn’t in the laboratory, he was in the library reading journals.”
Sancar, who received his M.D. from Istanbul University in Turkey in 1969, is also the first person from that country to receive a Nobel Prize in science.
Stephen Spiro, the head of the Department of Biological Sciences, said his own work as a Ph.D. student was influenced by Sancar.
“Back in the 1980s, one thing that molecular biologists spent a long time trying to do — and in fact what Aziz did here — was to isolate genes, to purify a piece of DNA that has on it a particular gene that encodes some particular protein,” he said. “He did that here and it was one of the very early examples of cloning a gene. One of the techniques that he developed while doing that … would allow you to identify the protein that’s encoded on the specific fragment of DNA … I used that technique to actually visualize the protein product made by that cloned gene.”
Spiro said Sancar’s work on, which clarifies how proteins in human cells help with DNA repair, is hugely important to understanding the process of how DNA is healed.
“That’s something that he discovered,” he said. “That this protein that’s involved in using light energy to repair DNA damage in some organisms, in humans is instead involved in the 24-hour clock.”
Although the full term implications of the discovery are not yet known, the impact on UTD has already been felt across campus.
“Having an alumnus named as a Nobel laureate shows that UT Dallas has come of age as an institution,” said President Ad Interim Hobson Wildenthal in an email. “For many years, we — and those who closely follow UT Dallas — have known we have outstanding faculty and students, but this recognition clearly validates our quality to a broader national and international audience. This should be a great moment for our campus community to celebrate, and we share this with those who have contributed their time, effort and money to support us and help UT Dallas become an emerging national academic presence.”