Nobel in Chemistry Goes to Two Long-Time NIGMS Grantees

Award Recognizes Studies of DNA Repair
An enzyme encircles the double helix to repair a broken strand of DNA.
The 2015 Nobel Prize in chemistry honors research that revealed how our cells repair damage to DNA using enzymes, such as the one shown here wrapping around the double helix. Without ways to fix damaged DNA, cells can malfunction, die, or become cancerous. Credit: Tom Ellenberger, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and Dave Gohara, Saint Louis University School of Medicine

Long-time NIGMS grantees Aziz Sancar, M.D., Ph.D., and Paul Modrich, Ph.D., along with Tomas Lindahl, M.D., Ph.D., will share the 2015 Nobel Prize in chemistry "for mechanistic studies of DNA repair.

Every day, our DNA is damaged by environmental assaults, as well as copy errors during cell division. And yet, despite this constant barrage of insults, our genomes remain largely intact. This year’s Nobel laureates in chemistry are recognized for detailing, at the molecular level, how cells repair DNA to preserve the genome.

“By following their curiosity about basic cellular processes, these scientists have given us a detailed understanding of molecular repair mechanisms that are essential to life,” said Kristine Willis, Ph.D., a geneticist who manages NIGMS research grants on DNA repair.

Aziz Sancar, whose research has been funded continuously by NIGMS since 1982, described how cells respond to DNA injuries from UV radiation or chemicals like the carcinogens found in cigarette smoke. Sancar’s fascination with how bacteria can survive UV radiation started him down a decades-long path of scientific inquiry that ultimately revealed the mechanics of nucleotide excision repair—the process by which enzymes remove small sections of damaged DNA and fill in the resulting gap.

Paul Modrich, whose research has been funded continuously by NIGMS since 1975, detailed how cells address the copy errors in the genetic code that accumulate naturally during cell division. Each time a cell divides, the DNA duplication machinery makes some thousand errors, placing one letter of our genetic code where another ought to be. By systematically studying enzyme after enzyme, Modrich traced the complex molecular process known as mismatch repair that fixes these mistakes.

Scientists are now trying to target the DNA repair systems in cancerous cells. They hope that by knocking out the ability of a cancerous cell to repair its DNA, the cell will eventually die from its many unrepaired genetic wounds. Already one anticancer drug on the market uses this approach.

NIGMS has a long history of funding Nobel Prize-winning researchers. Since its creation 53 years ago, the Institute has supported 40 Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine and 43 Nobel laureates in chemistry.

More information about NIGMS support of Nobel laureates is available with a complete list.