UT-Dallas alumnus wins Nobel Prize in chemistry

Matthew Adams

UT-Dallas alumnus Aziz Sancar won the school’s first ever Nobel Prize in chemistry last week.

Sancar, a professor in biochemistry and biophysics at the University of North Carolina, was one of three research members to win the award for their work on nucleotide excision repair, a mechanism that cells use to repair damage to DNA from ultraviolent radiation. Sancar said the research could advance cancer treatment research.

“[These repair mechanisms are] important in cancer treatment because many of the anti-cancer drugs do damage to DNA, and whether cancer cells can repair it or not could influence how cancer is treated,” Sancar said in a previous interview with Nobelprize.org.

Stephen Spiro, head of the Department of Biological Sciences at UT-Dallas, said this research has been crucial for the last 50 years of DNA research.

“One thing he did was to purify the protein component of that repair mechanism and do what is called reconstituting the test tube,” Spiro said. “[This research] has been known since the 1960s that organisms have mechanisms to repair damaged DNA. There was a classical view that DNA was a stable molecule, and mutations in the DNA were rare. Evidence in the 1960s showed DNA could be damaged quite easily.”

Spiro said Sancar worked on many different repair processes through the years, but one method of testing proved important for human cells.  

“You can purify the enzymes that repair the damaged DNA, and if you put them altogether in a test tube under the right conditions, you can recapitulate the repair process, … showing that proteins you think are involved in a process really are,” Spiro said.

Donald Gray, professor emeritus of biological sciences at UT-Dallas, said Sancar was one of his first graduate assistants after the University started accepting upper-level undergraduates in 1975. Gray said Sancar’s high work standards have helped him publish groundbreaking research throughout his career.   

“I believe that Aziz has built on his penchant for hard work, combined with a genius for selecting important problems and collaborators,” Gray said. “He is focused on making the best use of his time solving research problems.”

Spiro said Sancar’s accomplishment will bolster the profile of the relatively young UT-Dallas.

“It raises the profile of the institution,” Spiro said. “It’s great for our graduate students, and it shows you can do great research and great training here.”