Death of Frederick Sanger

By Eric Tomlinson, DSc, PhD, Chief Innovation Officer

The world lost a true pioneer today, a man whose research laid the foundation for so much of what is being accomplished in laboratories here and across the globe.

University of Cambridge biochemist Frederick Sanger, a two-time winner of the Nobel prize for chemistry, launched the era of modern DNA sequencing. Reading the DNA letters of genes is key to the majority of research into understanding disease—everything from diabetes to cancer to cardiovascular health.

The Nobel award for his technique, “Sanger sequencing,’’ came in 1980. The method, still in use today on many projects, was the standard for more than a generation and laid the groundwork for the “next-gen’’ DNA sequencing methods used today.

This was his second Nobel prize, the first having been awarded in 1958, when he was 40 years old, for his work in determining the complete sequence of insulin, not long after he had developed a new method for sequencing amino acids.

Sanger’s humble nature was evident throughout his life, and speaks to all scientists. He was born in 1918 in Gloucestershire, England, the son of a medical practitioner. Rather than follow his father’s course, Sanger decided while in college that he preferred basic science. Over the years, Sanger consistently credited his parents, his collaborators and colleagues, and the university with helping him to achieve his success.

And he had a great deal of success before retiring at age 65 in 1983. Sanger is one of only four people to have ever won two Nobel prizes, the highest honor in science, and he stands alone as a two-time chemistry prize winner.

Sanger once laid out why he was so intrigued by sequencing. “A knowledge of sequences could contribute much to our understanding of living matter,’ he said.

A quick look at some of the work done right here in labs at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center points back to Sanger’s research and work in sequencing, such as:

  • The novel potent cytotoxins developed in the laboratory of Waldemar Debinski, MD, PhD, to be used against Glioblastoma cells, and the possibility they could help in the fight against head, neck, pancreatic, ovarian and prostate cancers.
  • The flagellin fusion protein vaccines developed by Steven Mizel, PhD, to be used against plague, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, drugs of abuse/addiction, cancer and pneumococcus.
  • The identification of the APOL1 gene, and then the identification of variants in the gene that were accounting for kidney problems in many African-Americans by the laboratory of Barry Freedman, MD.

I met Fred Sanger but once a few years before he retired. His gentle demeanor was humbling when viewed alongside his greatness. Frederick Sanger was a brilliant scientist who set the stage for the modern era of genomics and personalized medicine. His scrupulous, inquiring mind is an inspiration as we continue to pursue the innovations of tomorrow. We are grateful for his life.