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UNC professor given Nobel Prize in Chemistry

“I’m really overwhelmed. I don’t know what to say,” Sancar said. “This is a recognition of the work done by many students and colleagues over the years.”

Sancar’s award-winning work centered around the mapping of DNA repair mechanisms in cells, especially involving damage from ultraviolet light, a cause of skin cancer.

“It is the knowledge of DNA repair that made it clear that cigarette smoke damages DNA, and that’s why it causes cancer. And this is why there has been a great reduction in smoking in this country and other countries,” he said. “Sunlight can induce skin cancer caused by DNA damage. If you prevent that, you reduce skin cancer.”

Sancar said his work began when he was a graduate student at the University of Texas. Sancar has worked at UNC since 1982. He previously discovered that the circadian clock regulates the repair of DNA damaged by ultraviolet light.

Chancellor Carol Folt said she is impressed by Sancar’s constant work ethic.

“I talked to him in his laboratory this morning. I asked if they were celebrating, and he said all of the students and everyone in there were trying to still get work done,” Folt said.

Folt said Sancar’s award comes with a lifetime campus parking pass.

“I was talking to him this morning, and I said, ‘Oh, the Nobel Prize is great, but I have even better news. You get a lifetime free parking pass,’” Folt said. “So I thought that was pretty good, but he laughed and said, ‘Well, I have an even bigger surprise — I don’t drive.’”

Tomas Lindahl of London’s Francis Crick Institute and Paul Modrich of Duke University’s School of Medicine also received the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday morning.

“(Modrich has) been an outstanding colleague and friend over the years,” Sancar said. “Actually, he may not know this — even though we all hate Duke, I have been nominating him for the last, I would say, 10 years for the Nobel Prize. So I was expecting Paul to get it.”

Bill Roper is dean of the School of Medicine, vice chancellor for medical affairs and CEO of the UNC Health Care system.

“Today’s Nobel Prize announcement indicates the importance of doing fundamental biomedical research,” Roper said. “It is not targeted in a particular area because this amazing set of discoveries came about not because someone knew the end from the beginning but because scientists were doing their wonderful work.”

Sancar will be honored again at University Day on Monday, Oct. 12.

“He’s been a very dedicated, focused scientist, and we’ve always known he was doing awesome work,” said Leslie Parise, chairperson of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. “But for him to be awarded and recognized in this way, he’s so deserving, and it’s so fantastic.”

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