Research paving the way for more effective cancer treatments has been happening here in the Triangle since the late 1970s. But today it was recognized globally with an announcement that a pair of Duke University and UNC researchers have won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The men are Paul Modrich of Duke University and Aziz Sancar of UNC, both age 69, and they share the prize with U.K. researcher Tomas Lindahl. Here’s an explanation of the science involved in their work.

Modrich became a member of the Duke Cancer Institute in 1976 and a professor of biochemistry in 1984. He’s served as a James B. Duke Professor of Medicine since 1988. His key finding is a mismatch repair system that finds and corrects errors in DNA code as chromosomes are replicated. A malfunctioning system is the cause of the most common form of hereditary colon cancer, some neurodegenerative diseases and nearly a third of all tumors. 
Here’s what his fellow researchers had to say about his work in today’s story in Duke Today.

“He always struck me as being very brilliant,” said research technician Elisabeth Penland who has worked in the Modrich lab since 1994. “Back then, one of his postdocs said ‘I expect Paul to get the Nobel prize one day.’ We’ve been waiting for this for 20 years. I knew this was coming. He’s brilliant. He never lets go. He is 10 steps ahead of everybody in his head.” 

“He’s worked on this his entire career — identifying the activities and characterizing the enzymes that carry out mismatch repair and contributing to understanding the biomedical importance of the system,” said colleague Lorena Beese, Ph.D, also a James B. Duke professor of biochemistry. “This prize speaks to the importance of fundamental basic science discoveries. Paul is an advocate for basic research and funding to support basic science.”

Aziz Sancar’s research has led to the mapping of DNA repair across the human genome, which has helped oncologists find better cancer therapies. His research has also helped to determine the best times of day to administer chemotherapy. As side projects, he and his wife Gwen, who also works as a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UNC, are founders of Carolina Turk Evi, short-term housing in Chapel Hill for Turkish scholars, and the Aziz and Gwen Sancar Foundation, which promotes Turkish culture in the U.S.

After receiving the news, he told the Academy (according to The Guardian): 

“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 for my adopted country. Especially for Turkey, it’s quite important.”

In addition to nabbing the world’s top award in chemistry, each man takes home the equivalent of $320,000 in Swedish Krona.
Check out the videos Nobel Prize created in their honor, and here’s coverage by The Wall Street JournalThe Guardian and The New York Times.