Duke University professor returns to lab after winning Nobel Prize

Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Duke University professor returns to lab after winning Nobel Prize
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Dr. Paul Modrich

DURHAM N.C. (WTVD) -- Duke University professor Dr. Paul Modrich returned to his research lab on Monday after winning this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Modrich is one of two professors in the Triangle to take home a Nobel Prize in chemistry this year - the other is Aziz Sancar from Duke's rival University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Read more about the Nobel Prize winners here.

Modrich tells us he's been working on his prize-winning DNA repair research for over 35 years with the help of a rotating lab team of scientists.

"The mean size of the lab for those 35 years was probably about 10 or 12 people, so that's 400 man-years of work approximately involved," Modrich said. "There's a lot of work!"

Friends, family, and former colleagues who've joined Modrich in his research greeted the Nobel Laurate at his Duke research lab Monday.

"The attachments that are formed between me and those people - hopefully those people and me, and those people and their colleagues in the lab - can last for years," Modrich said. "It's, for me, the best analogy is a family."

Some traveling across the states for the homecoming welcome - like Dr. Farid Kadyrov, associate professor at Southern Illinois University's School of Medicine.

Kadyrov said he worked for Modrich's lab for five years and says he's not surprised that Modrich's work was deemed Nobel-worthy.

"I always knew that Paul should get it," Kadyrov said. "The research is so unique and so unexpected from the beginning. That before Paul, and other people in the field, nobody knew that cells use enzymes that damage DNA to rescue damaged cells."

"This is the beauty of the system - that DNA repair system uses many enzymes that damage DNA, but this damage is necessary to rescue this cell."

Kadyrov said Modrich's work describes a system which detects small changes in DNA, drives reactions, and removes the damaged DNA, and says the lab was able to make this discovery after studying the process in bacteria first.

"These small changes of DNA will lead to cancer, so this is the beauty of the work there - from understanding the simple, basic mechanism of DNA repair in bacteria cells, we came to learn that this system in humans is very important for protecting us from cancer," Kadyrov said.

Dr. Modrich said the research isn't done yet. Kadyrov said the two plan to collaborate on research on proteins involved in the cell repair process.

Dr. Modrich says that although winning a Nobel Prize is a "stellar experience," he still values hands-on work in the lab.

"I think it's important that I still be able to do experiments at the bench, and this is my bench," Modrich said, tapping on the surface of his lab counter. "And I hope that this will not change my ability to do that, for me that's what science is."

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