NATO-supported DNA researcher wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry

  • 10 Dec. 2015 -
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  • Last updated: 21 Jan. 2016 11:29

From quiet, rural Turkey to the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Stockholm, Professor Aziz Sancar has, from a young age, made life choices that have taken him as far as discovering ways of curing serious illnesses such as skin cancer.

The 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry honours the scientific discoveries of Sancar and two colleagues, Tomas Lindahl and Paul Modrich, for their mechanistic studies of DNA repair. Prof. Sancar’s contribution lies in the mapping of the mechanism that cells use to repair UV damage to DNA. His work has therefore provided a better understanding of how our bodies fix DNA mutations that can be the cause of serious illnesses and aging.

"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, adding: "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".

NATO contributed to this scientific achievement by providing several grants to Prof. Sancar throughout his career: a NATO fellowship (1971-1973) and two NATO Collaborative Research Grants (one in 1986 and the other in 1990).

About Professor Sancar

Professor Aziz Sancar, born in 1946, grew up in the province of Mardin in Southeast Turkey, the seventh of eight siblings in a lower middle-class family. His parents were illiterate, but attached great importance to the education of their children.

When confronted with the choice between a childhood dream of playing football – Turkey's national junior team asked him to become their goalkeeper – and academia, he chose the latter. He received an M.D. summa cum laude, when he came top of his class among more than 600 students from the Istanbul Medical School in 1969. He then worked as a doctor in his home province.

In January 1971, he was awarded a PhD scholarship by the Turkish Scientific and Technological Research Council TUBITAK through the NATO Science Fellowship Programme. This two-and-a-half year grant helped Sancar to move to the United States in 1973, where he studied molecular biology and completed a Ph.D. on the photo-reactivating enzyme of E.coli from the University of Texas in 1977. After his graduation, failing to get a postdoc position, Sancar took up a laboratory technician’s position at the Yale University School of Medicine, one of the leading centres for DNA repair research.

Sancar accepted an offer to join the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Chapel Hill, as an associate professor in Biochemistry in 1982 where he could pursue his interest in photolyase. Since then, he has been researching DNA repair and regulation of the circadian clock and is now Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

NATO seed money

In February 1986, Professor Sancar and Dr Paul Heelis (North East Wales Institute, United Kingdom) received a NATO Collaborative Research Grant, supporting them to engage in a multi-year research project entitled “The photochemical studies of the mechanism of DNA photolyase”. The grant also allowed Prof. Sancar to visit his colleague in the UK several times to conduct experiments together. 

In a report submitted to NATO in November 1986, the research team foresaw the investigation of “the mechanisms of repair of DNA dimers by the fully reduced enzyme” using flash photolysis.  The final report of the NATO grant noted that “considerable progress has been made in understanding the mechanism of DNA repair” during the project.

In 1990, Prof. Sancar and Dr Heelis successfully applied for another NATO Collaborative Research Grant on the topic of ”Photoenzymic Repair of UV-Damaged DNA”. This allowed the team to continue its work in the first half of the 1990s on this eventually Nobel Prize-winning subject.

Other NATO-supported Nobel Prize winners

The NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme can look back at a long history of successful grantees and has supported the research of numerous Nobel Prize winners over the last decades. In the 1990s, a total of nine researchers who had benefitted from NATO grants, received a Nobel Prize in the field of physics or chemistry.

At the same time, excellent researchers have assisted the NATO Science Programme since its inception. For instance, Norman Ramsey, the first Chairman of the NATO Science Committee (founded in 1958) received a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1989.

Nobel Prize winners have also participated in NATO-funded workshops, including eight distinguished laureates who attended an event on discoveries in Particle Physics in 1994 and, more recently, the 1985 Nobel Prize winner in Physics, Klaus von Klitzing spoke at an SPS Advanced Research Workshop on the security applications of nanotechnology that took place in August-September 2015 in Odessa, Ukraine.


Nobel Prize for Physics

1989    Norman Ramsey (USA)

            First Science Committee Chairman 1958-59

1991    P.G. De Gennes (France), 1988 Director of a NATO Advanced Study Institute (ASI)

1997    Claude Cohen-Tannoudji (France)

            William D. Phillips (USA)

            NATO grantees in 1986 and 1994, respectively


Nobel Prize for Chemistry

1995    Paul Crutzen (Dutch), 1994 Workshop Director

1996    Harold Kroto (UK)

            Robert Curl (USA)

            Richard Smalley (USA)

            Various NATO grants between 1963 and 1987

1999    Ahmed Zewail (USA-Egypt), two NATO grants in the 1980s


Three Nobel Prize winners

1973    L. Esaki

1985    K. von Klitzing

1986    H. Rohrer

            Served as members of the former Panel on Nanoscale Science, 1991-1996

Eight Nobel Prize winners

1957    T-D. Lee

            C.N. Yang

1969    M. Gell-Mann

1976    S.C.C. Ting

1979    S.L. Glashow

            S. Weinberg

1988    M. Schwartz

1990    J.I. Friedman

            Participated in a 1994 workshop on discoveries in Particle Physics