Sancar Is UT Dallas' First Nobel-Winning Alum
Oct. 7, 2015
The 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to a graduate of The University of Texas at Dallas.
Dr. Aziz Sancar, who earned his PhD in molecular and cell biology from UT Dallas in 1977, is one of three scientists who received the Nobel Prize for their work detailing how cells continuously monitor and repair damaged DNA on a molecular level.
Sancar shares the prize with Tomas Lindahl of the Francis Crick Institute and Clare Hall Laboratory in the U.K., and Paul Modrich of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Duke University School of Medicine. The recipients’ work has provided fundamental knowledge of how a living cell functions and has applications in the development of new cancer treatments, for example.
In this file photo from 1975, Aziz Sancar works in the lab of the UT Dallas Biology Department 40 years before he won the Nobel Prize.
Sancar received the UT Dallas Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2009. He currently is the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
Sancar was cited for his research that describes the mechanism of nucleotide excision repair, the mechanism that cells use to repair damage to DNA caused by ultraviolet radiation. People born with defects in this repair system will develop skin cancer if they are exposed to sunlight.
“I’m so pleased I can hardly talk,” said Dr. Claud Stanley Rupert, professor emeritus at UT Dallas who was Sancar’s PhD advisor. Rupert did seminal research on enzymes in bacteria that are activated by visible light and are involved with repairing damaged DNA caused by ultraviolet light. As a UT Dallas student, Rupert said, Sancar successfully purified and described a bacterial enzyme called photolyase, which is critical to this type of DNA repair.
“He worked his head off when he was here. He must have spent about 90 hours a week between the laboratory and the library,” Rupert said. “He has turned out to be a wonderful man. He’s careful with his students, he’s sympathetic with them, and he works hard with them.
“I couldn’t be prouder. I admire him so much. If I never accomplished anything else, just helping Aziz get started here was enough,” Rupert said.
Dr. Don Gray, professor emeritus of biological sciences at UT Dallas, operated a laboratory next to Rupert’s when Sancar was a student.
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“Aziz, we remember, was always doing experiments, working at the (lab) bench until late at night,” Gray said. “By morning, he had used all of the sterile pipettes from his lab and all that he could borrow from others in the department.
“We often went together to a nearby Pancho's Mexican Buffet for dinner, and Aziz would take the hottest, most spicy items on the menu. Maybe that was one of his secrets of success,” Gray joked.
Dr. Stephen Spiro, professor and head of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University, said Sancar’s work at UT Dallas laid the foundation for his later studies of DNA repair in humans, and his discovery of cryptochrome, the photoreceptor that sets the biological clock according to the day/night cycle.
“We are enormously proud to be associated with Dr. Sancar and to have played a part in his fantastic career,” Spiro said. “We send our congratulations to Dr. Sancar and all of this year’s Nobel Prize winners.”
Dr. Hobson Wildenthal, president ad interim, said that Sancar’s achievements are momentous for UT Dallas and embody the University’s longstanding emphasis on academic and scientific excellence.
“Today is a day of great celebration — for Dr. Sancar, for the faculty members who worked with him, and for the institution as a whole,” Wildenthal said.
“The Nobel Prize is a crowning achievement in the career of any scientist, and we are immensely proud that UT Dallas played a key role in Dr. Sancar's success as both a scientist and a teacher.”