Why This Year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry Makes Us Happy [commentary]

Martha Snyder Taggart, BrightFocus Editor, Science Communications
  • Science News
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This year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry has brought attention to priorities we hold dear. Those include promoting health and vitality in old age, and fighting the factors that contribute to diseases of mind and sight.

The three individuals sharing this year’s chemistry prize have devoted their careers to studying how DNA, or the ribbon-like “master code” imprinted on each of our cells, repairs itself over a lifetime of damage. The assaults to DNA come in many forms, from hereditary “mistakes” that are encoded and passed down through generations, to environmental insults like ultraviolet rays, tobacco smoke, and pollution; to breakdowns in our body systems that nourish and maintain cells. These insults accumulate with age and are major risk factors that contribute to   Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, and glaucoma.

In the face of these insults, nature has endowed humans with a tremendous ability to mend DNA in ways that this year’s laureates have documented. And what a fascinating tale of resilience and repair it is, as detailed by New York Times science writer William Broad:

"The human body is made up of trillions of living cells, each containing a coiled mass of DNA that if straightened out would extend about six feet. In turn, each strand carries the thousands of genetic instructions needed to run the body.

But the DNA molecule is unstable. The genome of each cell undergoes thousands of spontaneous changes each day. And DNA copying for cell division and multiplication, which happens in the body millions of times daily, also introduces defects. Finally, DNA is damaged by ultraviolet light from the sun as well as by industrial pollutants and natural toxins — those in cigarette smoke, for example. What fights pandemonium are DNA repair mechanisms. Independently, the new laureates discovered a number of restorative steps."

As mentioned, DNA preservation and repair play a direct role in our bodies’ ability to defend themselves against Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, and glaucoma—the diseases that BrightFocus research awards go to study. Currently, across our three grant programs*, BrightFocus  is funding more than two dozen active grants to researchers who are looking at the role of oxidative stress (and how to defend against it).

When announcing this year’s prize winners earlier this week, Claes Gustafsson, chairman of the Nobel chemistry committee, told reporters that this year’s laureates “have explained the basic mechanisms that help to guard the integrity of our genomes.” It’s gratifying that this year’s honors go to chemists who have made large contributions to the life sciences, and to the eradication of human disease and disability, especially as they are compounded by age.

On that note, BrightFocus joins others in saying “congratulations” to Tomas Lindahl, PhD, retired professor emeritus at Clare Hall laboratories in the UK (originally from Stockholm, Sweden), who was the first to isolate a type of enzyme that repairs single strands of DNA when they break in living organisms; Paul L. Modrich, PhD, of Duke University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who spent decades investigating DNA mismatch repair as well as pathways that control mutations (a major contributor to neurodegenerative diseases); and to Aziz Sancar, MD, PhD, of the University of North Carolina (originally from Istanbul, Turkey), who shed light on the cellular mechanisms underlying DNA repair of damage caused by ultraviolet radiation and other environmental factors.

We also simply say, “thanks.” As an organization, we appreciate every day of your career that was spent (and continues to be spent) in a lab.  With support from generous donors, BrightFocus is working to advance the cause of other scientists who will follow in your footsteps. We, and they, owe you a debt of gratitude, because your focused, relentless scientific inquiries, and the knowledge you have gained and shared, have greatly informed the efforts of those who are working to cure diseases of mind and sight.

*BrightFocus Foundation awarded a total of $11 million in research funding last year, with the majority of funds provided through  three standard grant programs, Alzheimer’s Disease Research, Macular Degeneration Research, and National Glaucoma Research. For more information and to apply for grant funding, go to www.brightfocus.com.