CHAPEL HILL—There's more to this story than Dr. Aziz Sancar's monumental achievement of winning the 2015 Nobel Prize in chemistry. This is also a story about the early dreams that lead him there.
Growing up in rural Turkey in the 1950s, Aziz Sancar imagined himself playing on the Turkish national soccer team.
“I was goalie on my high school team and was called for the under 18 national team,” says Sancar, now Ph.D. and Professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. “I was a good player, but I probably needed about four inches in height and a little more bulk.”
Dr. Sancar says he needed to be a little more like Tim Howard, the goalie for the U.S. National Team.
“That’s what I needed, but since that wasn’t going to happen, I decided not to do soccer,” Dr. Sancar says, shrugging his shoulders, but still with a wistful look on his face.
However as you talk with the almost-Turkish national soccer team player in his office at the University, you can quickly see that dreams can come true in different ways than what you originally plan. He eventually got an autographed jersey from the Turkish national team, but this isn't the dream I'm referring to.
It turns out finishing at the top of his class in medical school, and then practicing medicine, wasn’t enough for Dr. Sancar. He wanted to understand how medicines worked at the cellular level.
“This is a very important biological fact,” says Dr. Sancar, referring to DNA's ability to repair itself. “It’s an important part of being alive.”
And so began a career of long hours, constant repetition of experiments, scrambling for funding and long odds that research will yield the expected results. Dr. Sancar and his team worked to understand DNA repair.
“Every question is important at the basic level, to understand how everything works,” adds Laura Lindsey-Boltz, an Associate Research Professor and Lab Manager in the Sancar lab. “We’re trying to understand this basic process and eventually that leads to breakthroughs that cure diseases, but it’s hard to understand how this will be relevant in the future. But that’s the nature of science, and research and discoveries.”
Chris Selby, a research instructor at the Sancar lab, remembers those long days and nights. He says basic research isn’t always a lot of fun. It’s very tedious. But he adds Dr. Sancar was always right there, working with everyone just as hard.
“As these results from tests and experiments came out on film, he would be looking over our shoulder and interpreting our data knowing what we had done and what the results were before we did," says Selby. “He was on top of everything.”
Dr. Sancar leads a team of ten researchers. The group eventually discovered one of the major mechanisms our bodies use to repair damaged DNA in our cells.
“He wanted to understand DNA, which is the basis for life in our cells and makes us who we are," says Dr. Leslie Parise, professor and Chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UNC-Chapel Hill. “It's such a fascinating molecule and he appreciated the mysteries early on, and as a result he made fundamental discoveries in how DNA repairs itself, which is important for life and is also important for cancer therapy.”
Without the repair system, DNA would mutate and that could lead to cancer.
Even after decades of work in the field, Dr. Sancar is still excited about his research. He just published another paper on his work a few months before winning the Nobel Prize.
“The enzyme has two cofactors, or small molecules that are associated with the protein,” explains Dr. Sancar. “And it can’t get any better than this. One is an antenna that has solar panels and sits on the enzyme, and the other sits on the core. The one on top collects the energy, and transfers it to the other which uses the energy to make the repair. We’re all excited about solar power and there it is!”
Even in his world of biochemistry and biophysics, some dreams never quite go away. Soccer still plays a big part in Dr. Sancar’s life.
Outside his office hangs an autographed jersey from Carolina’s women’s soccer team alongside Mia Hamm’s autographed jersey. Both were gifts for winning the Nobel Prize. He admits he never missed a women’s soccer game.
“The men’s game is brute force while the women’s game is more strategic,” says the team’s #1 fan. “Being presented the jersey was a very exciting day for me.”
One of the rewards of being a Nobel winner, is that you find another dream: helping others in Dr. Sancar's home country of Turkey. Dr. Sancar and his wife Gwen, who is also a biology professor at UNC Chapel Hill, created a foundation to help Turkish students. They bought a house in Chapel Hill as temporary housing for Turkish students and to hold cultural activities. The foundation is helping to educate 700 girls in Turkey. Dr. Sancar is a celebrity in Turkey. There’s a national stamp with his image. He’s also won national awards.
He’s a celebrity in North Carolina as well. A copy of his Nobel Prize will be displayed in the UNC-Chapel Hill library. It will sit next to the 2007 Nobel Award in physiology or medicine, which was won by Dr. Oliver Smithies.
The Board of Governors for the University of North Carolina System also presented the O. Max Gardner Award, its highest honor, to Dr. Sancar in 2016.
He’s honored and grateful for all of this, of course, but for Aziz Sancar, it’s still all about the dream, and inspiring other dreamers.
“I appreciate it, but what’s important is they appreciate science, they appreciate a scientist,” Dr. Sancar says. “To be a scientist, to contribute to scientific progress you have to learn and to compete with other great scientists. And here’s a kid from the boondocks of Turkey, who comes and competes with the best scientists in the world and makes this accomplishment. And I emphasize to countrymen and colleagues, it is our duty to contribute to humanity, it’s not just for our own good.”