Three Chapel Hill residents Aziz Sancar, Paul Modrich and Linda Birnbaum will be honored next month with the North Carolina Award, the state’s highest civilian honor, for science.
The North Carolina Awards recognize significant contributions to the state and nation in the fields of fine arts, literature, public service and science. Other recipients are Joseph Bathanti of Vilas for Literature, Robert Brown of High Point for Public Service, James Gardner of Rocky Mount for Public Service and Assad Meymandi of Raleigh for Fine Arts.
Gov. Pat McCrory will present the awards at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 in the Raleigh Marriott City Center. A reception begins at 6 p.m.
UNC researcher Sancar and Duke University researcher Modrich also won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Science, along with English researcher Tomas Lindahl. Each discovered different ways damaged DNA could be repaired, leading to understanding about how cancer and other diseases could be treated.
Sancar discovered that bacteria recovered from deadly doses of ultraviolet radiation when exposed to blue light that was mediated by the photolyase enzyme. He also cloned the gene for the enzyme photolyase, which repairs UV damaged DNA in bacteria, and deciphered the mechanism of another DNA enzyme system called nucleotide excision repair.
His work has increased understanding of how living cells work, the causes of cancer and the aging process.
Modrich, an early explorer in DNA research as an undergraduate student in the 1960s, discovered that cells have a way of repairing themselves when DNA strands are improperly paired. The system, called mismatch repair, serves as a proofreading mechanism that reduces the error rate by a factor of a thousand. It was a particularly important finding for colon cancer and other tumors and diseases, as well as for responses to anti-cancer DNA damaging drugs.
Birnbaum, an internationally recognized expert in the field of environmental health and toxicology, has investigated the effects of chemicals on human health. Her work exploring the effects of dioxins, asbestos, flame retardants and Agent Orange has affected practices and health outcomes worldwide.
She was encouraged by her high school cheerleading coach, who also taught science, and became the first female director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, whose research underlies global regulatory decisions, and the National Toxicology Program.
Equipped with a doctorate in microbiology, she undertook research in genetics and aging in various labs. She eventually settled in Research Triangle Park, becoming director of toxicology at the Environmental Protection Agency.