9+ Interesting Facts about Nobel Laureate Aziz Sancar

Aziz Sancar is an American-Turkish biochemist who discovered how cells repair UV damage.

Aziz Sancar is an American-Turkish biochemist who was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2015. He is best known for his groundbreaking discovery on the mechanisms used by bacteria and humans to find, remove and repair UV and chemically-damaged DNA.

We explore the life and times of Sancar and his award-winning work. 

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Where was Aziz Sancar born?

Aziz Sancar was born on the 8th of September in 1946 in Suvar, Mardin Province. "Aziz Sancar was born in Savur in southeast Turkey in a lower-middle-class family. His parents had no education but considered education important for their children." - Nobel Prize

He is best known as the biochemist who discovered a cellular process know as nucleotide excision repair

This is the process where cells correct errors in their DNA that arise from damage caused by exposure to UV of certain mutation-inducing chemicals. 

aziz sancar photo
Source: Holger Motzkau/Wikimedia Commons

As a result of this groundbreaking work, Aziz received the 2015 Nobel Price for Chemistry. He shared the prize with two other biochemists, Tomas Lindahl and Paul Modrich.

What is Aziz Sancar's profession?

Aziz Sancar is an American-Turkish biochemist whose work encompasses various subfields. These include,  but are not limited to: 

  • Biochemistry

  • Molecular biology

  • DNA repair

  • Molecular biophysics

  • Cancer research

As already mentioned, Aziz's primary work has been on DNA repair, but he also made significant contributions to photolyase and nucleotide excision repair in bacteria that have changed the field.

At this time, Aziz Sancar is the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. He's also a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. 

He is a co-founder of the Aziz & Gwen Sancar Foundation. It is a non-profit organization to promote Turkish culture and to support Turkish students in the United States.

"Aziz and Gwen Sancar Foundation (AGS Foundation) is organized primarily for educational and charitable purposes to increase understanding of Turkey, and to promote closer ties between the United States and Turkey. Established in 2007, it is a 501 (c) (3), a non-profit organization, with an EIN #26-0871109.

In the broad sense, the purpose of the organization is to establish a Turkish Student Center (Carolina Turkish House) in close proximity to the university campus," states the website of the Foundation. 

Which university did Aziz Sancar graduate from?

Aziz initially trained as an M.D. in 1969 at the Istanbul Medical School. After qualifying, he worked as a local physician near his hometown of Savur. 

In 1973, Aziz went to the United States to study molecular biology at the University of Texas in Dallas. He completed his Ph.D. at the university and was then offered a position as a research associate at Yale University.

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In 1982, Aziz joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. It was there that he was later named the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

What did Aziz Sancar discover?

"Living cells have DNA molecules that carry an organism's genes. For the organism to live and develop, its DNA cannot change. DNA molecules are not completely stable, and they can be damaged.

In 1983, through studies of bacteria, Aziz Sancar showed how certain protein molecules, [and] repair enzymes, repair DNA damaged by ultraviolet (UV) light.

These discoveries have increased our understanding of how the living cell works, the causes of cancer and aging processes," explains the Nobel Prize website.

Aziz Sancar, as a graduate student at the University of Texas, studied an enzyme called photolyase in E. coli. At this time, the enzyme had recently been discovered to mediate the process of photoreactivation

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This is where visible light induces enzymes to repair damaged DNA after being damaged by UV irritation. He would continue his research at Yale University.

9+ Interesting Facts about Nobel Laureate Aziz Sancar
E. coli. Source: NIAID/Flickr

"After moving to Yale, Sancar turned his attention to several other DNA repair factors in E. coli, namely the genes uvrAuvrB, and uvrC. He purified the genes and reconstituted them in vitro (“in glass,” or outside a living organism), leading to his discovery of the excision repair function of an enzyme known as uvrABC nuclease (excision nuclease, or excinuclease) in E. coli." - Encyclopedia Brittanica.

This enzyme, Aziz found, was able to specifically hone in on UV or chemically damaged DNA and remove it from the DNA sequence. The enzyme, it was revealed, was able to cut the damaged DNA strand at each end, enabling it to be removed by nucleotides. 

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Aziz and his colleagues were later able to identify a similar process in human beings. They found the components required for nucleotide excision repair in human cells, and proposed that human cells employed additional enzymes in the removal of the excised portion of DNA. 

"He also identified a role for defective nucleotide excision repair in the production of neurological abnormalities associated with xeroderma pigmentosum, a neurodegenerative condition that predisposes individuals to skin cancer," according to Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Building on their findings, Aziz and his team were also able to discover that abnormalities in nucleotide excision repair appeared to be the leading cause of some other diseases. 

These include, but are not limited to:

In the early 2000s, Aziz was able to observe, for the first time, the mechanism of DNA repair by photolyase. He was able to identify human orthologs for E. coli photolyase in humans — cryptochrome 1 and 2.

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These cryptochromes, which are located in the eye, function as photoreceptive components of the mammalian circadian clock.

When did Aziz Sancar receive the Nobel Prize, and is it true, he donated it?

As we have already mentioned, Aziz received his Nobel Prize in 2015 "for mechanistic studies of DNA repair," and shared the award with two others, Tomas Lindahl and Paul Modrich.

A proud Turk, Aziz later donated his original Nobel Prize golden medal and certificate to the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Anitkabir) in a presidential ceremony in 2016.

Azia also delivered a replica of his Nobel medal and certificate to Istanbul University, where he earned his MD.

Selected facts about Aziz Sancar

1. Aziz Sancur was born on the 8th of September 1946 in Savur, Turkey. 

2. Aziz earned his M.D. in Turkey but later completed a Ph.D. in the United States.

3. Aziz Sancar was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2015.

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4. Currently, he's a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Chapel Hill.

5. Aziz Sancar is married to Gwen Boles Sancar, also a professor of biochemistry and biophysics. The couple met while Aziz was completing his Ph.D. in Dallas, Texas. 

6. He is best known for his discovery of how certain protein molecules and enzymes are able to repair UV and chemically damaged DNA. 

7. Aziz is an elected member of multiple academies, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2004), the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (2005), and the Turkish Academy of Sciences (2006).

8. When asked if he is "a Turk or half-Arab" by the BBC, Sancar responded: "I told them that I neither speak Arabic nor Kurdish and that I was a Turk." He continued: "I'm a Turk, that's it. It doesn't matter that I was born in Mardin."

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9. Sancar's work could yield important developments in the fight against cancer in the future. 

"DNA repair is important in terms of preventing the human body against cancer because most of the factors that lead to cancer, damage DNA and cause the person to have that disease," Sancar told Anadolu Agency in an interview. "We have revealed how DNA repairs itself and how the human cells protect themselves against cancer," he added.

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