We had some great news today as one of our fantastic scientists, Tomas Lindahl, was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for Chemistry along with Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar.

It brings the Cancer Research UK tally of Nobel Prizes to seven. And our chief executive, Harpal Kumar, was particularly thrilled with the news.

“I’m absolutely delighted for Tomas, one of our most brilliant scientists and leaders. This award is thoroughly deserved,” he told us.

“Thanks to his vision and creative genius, he was one of the first scientists to spot the process of DNA repair – something we now know plays a fundamental role in the development of cancer. His work led to a deeper understanding of why the disease develops and, crucially for patients, treatments that target cancer’s weak spots in DNA repair.”

Tomas was the first director of Cancer Research UK-funded labs at Clare Hall in London, when it opened in 1986. Under his inspirational leadership, it became, and remains, a world-leading centre for studying how cells repair their DNA.

A Swedish born scientist, Tomas made the pioneering discovery that DNA inside cells was continually damaged through normal every day wear and tear, and for cells to survive they must somehow have the ability to repair this damage. At the time, this was a ground-breaking new concept.

He went on to discover several important families of molecules that help patch up mistakes in our DNA. And this pioneering work truly revolutionised the field of cancer research, as we explore below.

1. A whole new research field

Faults in DNA repair play a key role in cancer developing, and is an active field of research that scientists, including many mentored by Tomas, are still pursuing.

Crucially for patients, the discovery has also led to a whole toolbox of treatments to beat cancer.

2. Better treatments

Scientists used the understanding of DNA damage and repair to design chemotherapy drugs that cause irreparable DNA damage that destroy cancer cells. It’s also the basis of radiotherapy, so thanks to Tomas’s studies into DNA repair, scientists are researching ways to make radiotherapy more effective in the future by combining it with drugs that stop cancer cells fixing the damage.

3. Targeting cancer’s weaknesses

Newer targeted treatments are also being developed that target critical weaknesses in cancer cells based on faults in their DNA repair toolkits. An example is the discovery of PARP inhibitors – a class of drugs that wouldn’t exist without the founding knowledge from Tomas’s lab.

4. The Epstein Barr Virus

Tomas also made some of the earliest and most important discoveries into how Epstein Barr Virus (EBV) can alter DNA and lead to cancer developing – in fact, that’s how he met his partner, Beverly Griffin, which brought him to England to continue his research.

Lindahl

Beverly and Tomas. Credit: CRUK London Research Institute Archives.

Tomas Lindahl has had a remarkable career making many discoveries that sit at the very foundations of our understanding of cancer, and that have led to new treatments that benefit patients. We’re over the moon to hear his brilliance has been recognised with a well deserved Nobel Prize, and beyond proud that Cancer Research UK supported his research for much of his career.

If you’d like to read more about Tomas Lindahl’s ground-breaking work, you can find out more in chapter four of Kathleen Weston’s book about the history of Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute: ‘Blue Skies and Bench Space’.

Emma

Read more about some of our Nobel Prize-winning discoveries