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Science & Technology

Nobel Prize In Chemistry Awarded To 3 Scientists For DNA Repair Discovery


The 2015 Nobel Prize in chemistry was announced this morning in Stockholm for work that has enormous implications for human health. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca tuned into the news conference and reports the prize rewarded a better understanding of how cells work.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Just after 11:45 a.m. Stockholm time, the secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy, Goran Hansson, made the announcement everyone was waiting for.


GORAN HANSSON: (Speaking Swedish).

PALCA: Hansson was quick to help out those of us whose Swedish is rusty.


HANSSON: This year's prize is about the cell's toolbox for repairing DNA.

PALCA: The prize is shared jointly by Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar. Lindahl is Swedish but works in Britain. Sancar was born in Turkey but now works at the University of North Carolina. Modrich is from New Mexico, and he works down the road from Sancar at Duke University. Although, today, he was reportedly paddling a canoe in New Hampshire and not carrying his cell phone. All three worked on what's known as DNA repair mechanisms.

Lorena Beese collaborates with Paul Modrich at Duke University. She says there are a lot of ways that DNA inside cells can get damaged. Radiation can damage DNA.

LORENA BEESE: UV light can damage DNA. Chemicals can damage DNA. And then, if it isn't repaired, then you have errors that occur.

PALCA: Beese says Modrich and his fellow laureates discovered some of the mechanisms cells use to correct those errors and what goes wrong when those repair mechanisms stop working properly.

BEESE: If your guardians of the genome aren't working, then these errors accumulate.

PALCA: And if enough of these errors accumulate, the result can be disease, including cancer.


TOMAS LINDAHL: It's generally believed today cancer is a disease of genome instability, DNA damage.

PALCA: That's today's winner Tomas Lindahl speaking at a conference at the National University of Ireland in Galway earlier this year.


LINDAHL: The more we know about how DNA is damaged and how it's repaired, the more effective we can be in devising methods to eradicate cancer cells, specifically without harming normal cells.

PALCA: Developing cancer therapies based on DNA repair mechanisms is an active field of research. Lorena Beese says this year's Nobel Prize is a good example of the importance of basic research.

BEESE: These are fundamental discoveries of life processes, and you never know where they're going to lead.

PALCA: Beese says she worried that nowadays, there's too much emphasis on what's called translational research - research aimed more directly at finding treatments for disease.

BEESE: But at these basic science discoveries, you're not going to get the translational research (laughter) without this basic science.

PALCA: She hopes this year's Nobel Prize will remind people of that. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.