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İSMET BERKAN >The path that took Aziz Sancar to the Nobel

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If, in this country, we could convert the energy we spend on absurd discussions to, for instance, electricity, most probably we would not have the need for Russia to build a nuclear power plant for us. 

The debates that erupted with Aziz Sancar’s sharing the Nobel Chemistry Prize this year are all in this category. We have been talking ridiculous nationalism for two days. 

Take Swedish Tomas Lindahl who also shared the prize in chemistry. He is the person who shattered the view that DNA was a perfect structure impossible to damage.    

He was born in Sweden and received his basic education there but the question that brought him a Nobel Prize today was asked during his doctorate studies in Princeton, the United States: “How stable is this DNA thing?”

Lindahl continued his studies in Sweden’s famous Karolinska Institute and then went to the U.S. again. He showed that DNA was continuously damaged and repaired itself; then he received the Nobel while he was working in an institute in London founded in the name of Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of DNA.  

Where is Lindahl from now-- Sweden, the United States or the United Kingdom? This is a ridiculous question. 

The same goes for Aziz Sancar. His interest in DNA repair mechanisms started in Turkey. While he was a student at the medical faculty of Istanbul University, he was able to distinguish the first enzyme that caused damage. Then he met molecular biology while he was in the United States with a scholarship. 

The field he worked in was the most widespread reason for DNA damage, exposure to sun light, more precisely, ultraviolet rays.  Especially a result of marrying kin, a genetic disease develops called “Xeroderma Pigmentosum.” We know cousin marriages in Turkey are very widespread; maybe Sancar was inspired by this. Maybe he has seen many patients suffering from this disease. These patients, if exposed to sunlight, may develop skin cancer. 

Sancar revealed the entire mechanism that caused DNA damages, mapped them and showed the whole repair mechanism of damaged DNA in a cell.   

Right at this period, the third winner, Paul Modrich, found another DNA repair mechanism. This is how the road to the Nobel was paved. 

Sancar dedicated at least 20 years of his life to this. With a rough estimate, he spent eight to 10 years of his life looking through the lens of a microscope.  

Sancar did not only work on DNA repair mechanisms; he is also one of the leading researchers on the “biological clock.” And many more awards are expected on that front also. 

Science is not done for only a country, a nation or an ethnic group; the new information obtained from science belongs to all of humanity. If, as a result of Aziz Sancar’s and other molecular biologists’ studies, a cure for certain cancers is developed, all of humanity will benefit from it, not a specific group. 

Our issue is that we were able to take to the level of a Nobel, a poor boy born in a village in 1946, educating him in our schools and graduating him from our university. Well, what about those born later? Were we able to continually provide the same means to those born in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s or not? 

I think we were not. The years Aziz Sancar was raised, there was an egalitarian and relatively qualified education that we eroded with every passing year. Today, we have reached the most unequal situation that it could possibly reach. In those years, we were able to give the best education provided by the republic to Aziz Sancar, born in Savur of Mardin; we are not able to give the same education to other disadvantaged. 

For this reason, actually, the number of educated people who can reach the Nobel prize does not increase in years; it actually decreases. 

If we are to be engaged in a constructive debate related to Aziz Sancar, let’s at least discuss this.

October/09/2015

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