Three scientists from Sweden, the United States and Turkey were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for showing how cells repair damaged DNA, work that can be used to develop new cancer treatments.
Swedish scientist Tomas Lindahl, American Paul Modrich and U.S.-Turkish national Aziz Sancar shared the $960,000 award.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said their work on DNA repair can be used for the development of new cancer treatments.
"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 ageing," the panel said.
Our DNA, the molecule that contains our genes, is constantly under assault from ultraviolet rays from the sun and carcinogenic substances. But it was thought to be a stable molecule until the 1970s, when Lindahl showed that it decays at a rate that seemed incompatible with human life.
Lindahl realized that there must a repair mechanism, opening a new field of research, the academy said.
Sancar mapped the mechanism that cells use to repair UV-damaged DNA. Modrich showed how the cell corrects errors when DNA is replicated during cell division, a process known as mismatch repair.
The findings are significant for cancer research because cancer cells are kept alive by DNA repair mechanisms. Researchers are now looking at ways to destroy the repair mechanisms within the cancer cells to kill them, academy member Peter Brzezinski said.
The academy highlighted one such drug that's already on the market: olaparib, which is used to fight ovarian cancer.
Lindahl, 77, is an emeritus group leader at Francis Crick Institute and Emeritus director of Cancer Research UK at Clare Hall Laboratory in Britain.
Modrich, born in 1946, is an investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute and professor at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina.
Sancar, 69, is a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Sancar is the second Turk to win a Nobel Prize after novelist Orhan Pamuk was awarded the literature prize in 2006.
"I'm sure there will be (celebrations in Turkey)," Sancar said. "Yes, they've been asking over the years and I was tired of hearing 'when are you going to get the Nobel Prize?' so I'm glad for my country as well."
Speaking by phone to a news conference in Stockholm, Lindahl said "it was a surprise" to win the award.
The award will be handed out along with the other Nobel Prizes on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.
This year's medicine prize went to scientists from Japan, the U.S. and China who discovered drugs to fight malaria and other tropical diseases. Japanese and Canadian scientists won the physics prize for discovering that tiny particles called neutrinos have mass.
The Nobel awards week continues with the announcements for the two most closely-watched prizes: on Thursday the winner of the literature prize will be announced, followed by the peace prize on Friday. The economics prize will wrap up this year's Nobel season on Monday, October 12.