The Triangle Celebrates an Award-Winning Collaboration

Part of the Paul Modrich Shares Nobel Prize in Chemistry Series

Aziz Sancar

UNC biochemist Aziz Sancar discusses his work at the Wednesday news conference. He shared the Nobel Prize with Duke's Paul Modrich and Swedish researcher Tomas Lindahl. Photo by Jon Gardner/Duke Photography

Wednesday was a big day for the Research Triangle and for basic science.

On a glorious sunny, fall day, faculty, students and administrators from both Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill gathered together at a joint news conference to celebrate Paul Modrich of Duke and Aziz Sancar of UNC winning the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The two biochemists shared the prize with Swedish researcher Tomas Lindahl for their research explaining how the body repairs damaged and mismatched DNA.

“I think this is a wonderful day for us in the Triangle, and we think it’s wonderful that we’re sharing it with our colleagues at Duke,” said Carol Folt, chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill. 

“We all talk about the $2.5 billion in research that comes through not just UNC and Duke, but all the Triangle universities. That work is all of immense value, but not all of it has immediate effects. It’s invested over a long time. It reminds us all what is happening in a very special place and why we all work so hard to keep it going.”

Modrich, who was vacationing in New Hampshire, phoned into the news conference. He thanked his many colleagues, graduate students and postdoc researchers who have collaborated with him on nearly 40 years of research at Duke.  One of his lab colleagues is his wife, Vickers Burnett.

“I’ve been stunned by this award and the overwhelming response of my colleagues,” Modrich said by phone at the conference.  “This acknowledgement must be shared by the many outstanding postdocs, students and others who have made it happen, and with my mentors at Stanford and Harvard who taught me so much.”

The joy of winning the Nobel was heightened by the fact he shared it with “Aziz and Tomas, both of whom I consider my colleagues and my friends.”

Sancar and Modrich worked on two separate but related paths on the same problem: How does the body repair damaged DNA?

Every second of every day, the human body is copying DNA inside of us, but our health is dependent upon all aspects of that complex process going right.  If the base pairs are damaged – say by ultraviolet light – or if something goes wrong in the copying mechanism, cancer or other disease can occur.

At the conference, Sancar talked about his work exploring repairs of missing pieces of DNA, which is vital to healing UV damage and preventing skin cancer. Modrich’s work focused on the mechanisms by which the body identifies and fixes mismatched base pairs when DNA is copied in cell division.

While underscoring the value of basic science, the research by both Sancar and Modrich is finding its way into current cancer treatments, said Dr. Michael Kastan, director of the Duke Cancer Institute.

For example, Modrich found genes involved in mismatch DNA pairs that cause uterine and colon cancers. This, in turn, is helping researchers “identify families that are at risk for colon cancer. Although it’s strong basic science, it also has immediate implications for our patients,” Kastan said at the news conference.

The two share authorship on several papers but, more importantly, share ideas regularly and meet for dinner occasionally, Sancar said. Both regularly present seminars at the other’s institution.

Their example is a model of how the two universities can promote success at the other, Kastan said.

“There’s no mystery that great universities are built on great faculty,” Kastan added. “And we recruit great faculty by having a great environment. For us, part of the great environment is having these universities close together. Between us we have four Nobel Prize winners and two Lasker Award winners, and that’s how we get to recruit in the Triangle.”