Nobel the fruit of NC investment in academic research

Nobel winner Aziz Sancar poses for a selfie with UNC graduate student Heather Decot.
Nobel winner Aziz Sancar poses for a selfie with UNC graduate student Heather Decot. jhknight@newsobserver.com

It has been a momentous week in our state’s history with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Dr. Aziz Sancar and Duke University’s Dr. Paul Modrich being awarded the Nobel Prize for work on DNA repair. (Dr. Tomas Lindahl, a U.K.-based researcher, also shared the prize.) It’s wonderful to see scientists find solutions to the complex problems of our time. Their interdisciplinary approach to scientific discovery – involving many people with different backgrounds, ideas and experiences – is a hallmark at both Carolina and Duke and one that is needed to achieve the greatest outcomes for our world.

Sancar’s story is also a Carolina story. He has been at UNC-Chapel Hill since 1982, and, though he began his studies on DNA repair as a graduate student and postdoctoral student elsewhere, the majority of his work has taken place on our campus. His rise from his humble birth in Turkey to serving as a physician in a rural war-torn region to his preeminence while remaining a modest, kind man speaks to all of us.

The research that was recognized with a Nobel Prize is groundbreaking. It completely changed our most fundamental understanding of how our DNA repairs itself as it deals with a constant barrage of damaging factors. Without DNA repair, our species wouldn’t survive. One of Sancar’s specific contributions was to show how cancer drugs actually damage the DNA in cancer cells and thereby can be used to kill cancer cells. The research by Sancar and Modrich has led to novel treatments for cancer and new drug development. It will help save millions of lives and spawn new companies and jobs here and across the world.

Sancar’s most recent research, completed just this year, was to fully map the human genome for repair genes. The effects of this work could be so profound that they lead to a second Nobel Prize one day. But what he and the other winners accomplished took many years and could not have been predicted at the start. The quest for knowledge that lies at the heart of all great scientific and technological advances starts as a tiny seed and sprouts and grows only when nurtured and cared for over time. Their work over 40 years has branched out exponentially and continues to drive discovery among many other communities of students and colleagues.

The Nobel Prize winners of the future are working right now at campuses across our state and around the country. They may be graduate students or world-renowned scientists. They are growing up in our towns and dreaming of coming to our universities. They are moving to America from other countries and relying on our freedoms and opportunities for unimpeded scientific inquiry to see their own discoveries sprout and grow.

While the Nobel Prize is a special honor for two world-class North Carolina institutions that have a long history of notable accomplishments, it is also a remarkable achievement for the vibrant Triangle and our state. The groundbreaking work taking place at Carolina every day is made possible by the state’s investment. In fact, we celebrated Sancar’s historic moment in Marsico Hall, our most recent science building funded by the generosity of the State of North Carolina. It houses an array of exciting biomedical projects that have the potential to change science and lives just as Sancar’s research has done. As I said at our celebration honoring Sancar and Modrich, the state’s investment in Carolina, indeed in all her proud universities, is absolutely fundamental to our individual and collective success.

This Nobel Prize reaffirms our commitment to bringing the very best in teaching and research to the citizens of North Carolina, our nation and the world. Let’s all take inspiration from this historic moment and take pride in knowing that the work being done at universities in North Carolina changes the world for the better.

Carol L. Folt is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.