Saturday, 12 December 2015

Turkish scientist Aziz Sancar receives Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Swedish King Carl Gustaf presents Prof. Aziz Sancar with the Nobel Prize.  Photo: Reuters

A scientist from Turkey, now based in America, has been recognised for his vital scientific discovery of how cells repair damaged DNA.

On Thursday 10 December, Professor Aziz Sancar was one of three to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden at the Stockholm Concert Hall, after the orchestra played a rendition of Mozart’s Turkish March. His family, the Turkish ambassador to Sweden, and several Turkish journalists were among those the professor had invited to the award ceremony, which was televised live to the world.

In the evening, the Swedish Royal Family hosted a magnificent banquet at Stockholm's City Hall in honour of the winners. Each Nobel Laureate arrived with a member of the royal family, with Princess Christina – the Swedish King’s youngest sister – accompanying Prof. Aziz Sancar.

From a rural village in Turkey to Nobel Laureate
The award is an important milestone in Prof. Sancar’s incredible life journey given his humble beginnings in rural Turkey.

Sweden's Princess Christina with Aziz Sancar (back), & Princess Madeline
with Paul Modrich.  Photo Fredrik Sandberg, AP
He was born in Savur, near Mardin in southeast Turkey, in 1946, the seventh of eight siblings. Although his parents were illiterate, they knew the value of education and did all they could to ensure their children completed their schooling.  

A gifted student, Sancar also showed promise at football. He was the goalkeeper for his high school team and trialled for the Turkish national youth football team. He dreamt of success in both, but when it was clear his life was not to be as a top footballer, he dedicated himself to his studies.

He graduated first in his class from Istanbul University’s Faculty of Medicine in 1969. After two years working as a doctor near his home province, he decided to pursue a career in biochemistry.

In 1971, he was awarded a PhD scholarship by TUBITAK (the Turkish Scientific and Technological Research Council) as part of the NATO Science Fellowship Programme. This grant enabled Sancar to move to the United States in 1973, where he studied molecular biology, completing his Ph.D. on the photo-reactivating enzyme of E.coli from the University of Texas, Dallas, in 1977.

After his graduation, as he could not get a postdoc position, he took up a laboratory technician’s position at the Yale University School of Medicine – one of the leading centres for DNA repair research. Five years later, he accepted an offer to join the University of North Carolina School of Medicine as an associate professor in Biochemistry. He is now the university’s Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

Since the 1980s, he has been investigating the Photoenzymic Repair of UV-Damaged DNA. Several NATO Collaborative Research Grants have helped Sancar and his colleagues to pursue their important scientific studies, which eventually resulted in the Nobel Prize-winning work that was internationally recognised this year.

Prof. Aziz Sancar moved to the US in 1973 & is now recognised as one of the world's leading scientists
The Turkish professor has won multiple awards during his career, both in the USA and in his native Turkey. They include: Young Researcher of the Year from the US National Science Foundation (1984), the TÜBİTAK Science Award (1997), and the Vehbi Koç Award (2007). In 2005, he became the first member of Turkish origin to be elected to the American National Academy of Sciences.

This year, he and his two colleagues, Tomas Lindahl and Paul Modrich, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their mechanistic studies of DNA repair. Prof. Sancar’s contribution was to map the mechanism that cells use to repair UV damage to DNA. This discovery gives us a better understanding of how our bodies fix DNA mutations caused through aging, serious illnesses, and also through the use of harsh medical treatments such as chemotherapy, which also damage DNA.

On being informed of his award by Adam Smith of the Nobel Foundation in a telephone call back in October, Sancar said: “I am of course honoured to get this recognition for all the work I've done over the years, but I'm also proud for my family and for my native country and my adopted country, and especially for Turkey it's quite important.”

He has dedicated his Nobel Prize to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, who placed huge importance on the education of the republic’s citizens, especially girls. It is an aspect Prof. Sancar has also drawn attention to following his new-found fame, also emphasising the need for Turkish girls to be allowed to complete their schooling.

Three Nobel Prize winners from Turkey
Aziz Sancar is the third person born in Turkey to receive the prestigious Nobel Prize. The first was George Seferis. Of ethnic Greek origin, Seferis was born in Urla, near İzmir, in 1900. His family moved to Athens in 1914 and after graduating from university, he joined Greece’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, rising through the ranks to become a leading diplomat. He was also a renowned writer and poet, and it was "his eminent lyrical writing, inspired by a deep feeling for the Hellenic world of culture" which brought him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963.

Izmir-born George Seferis (right) & Orhan Pamuk from Istanbul
Forty three years later, another writer from Turkey – Orhan Pamuk – also received the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Istanbul-born best-selling novelist has had his books translated into 60 different languages, making him one of Turkey’s best-known literary exports. Explaining why he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 2006, the Swedish academy said: "In the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city, [Pamuk] has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures."

What is the Nobel Foundation?
Located in Sweden, the Nobel Foundation is a private institution established in 1900, based on the will of Alfred Nobel. In line with his wishes, each year the Foundation oversees the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace, for those whose work offers “the greatest benefit to mankind”. The Foundation also organises a range of related activities such as the Nobel Symposia, which has been held annually since 1965 to enable the discussion of vital scientific developments or topics of primary cultural or social significance, with the contributions published in a book and online.

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