Three scientists shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for their work deciphering the mysteries of how cells repair damaged DNA, work that could lead to new therapies for everything from cancer to old age.
Swedish scientist Tomas Lindahl, American Paul Modrich and U.S.-Turkish national Aziz Sancar will share in the award of roughly $960,000.
"Their systematic work has made a decisive contribution to the understanding of how the living cell functions, as well as providing knowledge about the molecular causes of several hereditary diseases and about mechanisms behind both cancer development and aging," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement.
Lindahl, of the Francis Crick Institute and Clare Hall Laboratory in Britain, began with a fundamental question in the late 1960s: "How stable is DNA, really?" He found that DNA decays so rapidly that the frequent changes should be devastating to life. Multiple potentially dangerous breakdowns of the genome happen every day, according to his work. Lindahl discovered base excision repair, a mechanism by which certain proteins work to constantly repair DNA.
"I feel very lucky and privileged," Linahl said Wednesday in an interview posted on the Nobel web site. "It's always nice at the end of your career to have recognition that what you have done is actually important."
Sancar, a dual citizen of Turkey and the United States and a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, focused on the mechanisms by which proteins repair ultraviolet damage, called nucleotide excision repair. His "ability to generate knowledge about the molecular details of the process changed the entire research field," the Nobel committee said Wednesday.
Modrich, a Duke University medical professor and investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, detailed the mechanism behind how cells correct errors that occur when DNA is replicated during cell division -- a process known as mismatch repair.
"The genetic information that governs how human beings are shaped has flowed through our bodies for hundreds of thousands of years," the Nobel committee wrote in its Wednesday statement. "It is constantly subjected to assaults from the environment, yet it remains surprisingly intact. "
The three scientists honored Wednesday have helped to demonstrate how and why our genetic information is remarkably resilient. It also has real-world implications for areas such as cancer research, given that cancer cells themselves rely on DNA repair mechanisms to survive.
Researchers are now studying ways to disrupt or destroy the repair mechanisms within cancer cells in hopes of killing them off. The Nobel committee itself highlighted one cancer drug already on the market, known as olaparib, that uses this approach to treat women with a certain type of ovarian cancer.
"The awards really give recognition to the role that chemistry plays in repairing DNA, the blueprint of life itself," American Chemical Society president Diane Grob Schmidt told The Washington Post. The repairs, she explained, involve the making and breaking of chemical bonds. Without chemistry, these processes wouldn't be possible, and life simply could not occur.
Because DNA damage leads to notable ill effects in humans -- the side effects of old age, certain congenital defects, and cancer, just to name a few -- understanding these mechanisms is more than just basic science. With the work of people such as the 2015 laureates, researchers can work to find ways to make our own DNA repair mechanisms. If there's ever a "cure" for old age, these scientists will likely be able to take some of the credit.
"Now we have a better understanding of how these mechanisms occur," Schmidt said. "Understanding this can potentially open the door to the development of insights from a pharmaceutical perspective."
This post has been updated.