The three opened a dazzling frontier in medicine by unveiling how the body repairs DNA mutations that can cause sickness and contribute to ageing, the Nobel jury said.
“Their systematic work has made a decisive contribution to the understanding of how the living cell functions, as well as providing knowledge about the molecular causes of several hereditary diseases and about mechanisms behind both cancer development and ageing,” the panel said.
DNA — deoxyribonucleic acid — is the chemical code for making and sustaining life.
Cells divide, or replicate, billions of times through our lifetime. Molecular machines seek to copy the code perfectly, but random slipups in their work can cause the daughter cells to die or malfunction. DNA can also be damaged by strong sunlight and other environmental factors.
But there is a swarm of proteins — a molecular repair kit — designed to monitor the process. It proof-reads the code and repairs damage.
The three were lauded for mapping these processes, starting with Lindahl, who identified so-called repair enzymes — the basics in the toolbox.
Sancar discovered the mechanisms used by cells to fix damage by ultraviolet radiation. Modrich laid bare a complex DNA-mending process called mismatch repair.
“The basic research carried out by the 2015 Nobel laureates in chemistry has not only deepened our knowledge of how we function, but could also lead to the development of lifesaving treatments,” the Nobel committee said.
AS-IT-HAPPENED: The Local's blog from the announcement in Stockholm
With cells able to repair themselves, one could ponder the dizzying possibility that humans could go on living forever.
“No, I don't believe in eternal life,” Lindahl, who is based in Britain, told reporters by telephone at the prize announcement, saying winning the prestigious honour was “a surprise”.
He said scientists were increasingly turning their attention away from curing diseases such as cancer and instead looking for chronic treatments.
“We are getting away a little bit (from) trying to find a cure for everything, and convert diseases to something we can live with,” he said.
“It's difficult to cure diabetes but we have good ways of treating diabetic patients, and I think with regard to DNA damage that will be an increasingly important aspect.”
Wednesday's Nobel Prize announcement in Stockholm. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT
DNA repair researcher Nora Goosen of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands told AFP targeted attacks on cancer were one possible practical application of the prizewinning research.
She said the same mechanism by which cells repair DNA damage can also make them resist the effects of chemotherapy. By understanding how the cell repair system works, doctors hope they will one day be able to instruct cancerous cells not to fight against treatment, thus making chemotherapy more effective.
Other scientists heaped praise on Lindahl for his pioneering work.
They included Britain's prestigious Royal Society, of which he is a fellow, and British biochemist Sir Tim Hunt, who was a co-winner of the 2001 Nobel for cell duplication.
“This is wonderful news!” Hunt told the Science Media Centre (SMC) in London. “Tomas was my boss for almost 20 years, a real scientists' scientist… (a) richly-deserved prize.”
It is the seventh time DNA research has been honoured with a Nobel prize. The first was in 1962, for the discovery of the structure of DNA.
Lindahl, Modrich and Sancar share the prize sum of eight million Swedish kronor (around $950,000 or 855,000 euros).
Lindahl, 77, is the emeritus director of Cancer Research UK at Clare Hall Laboratory in Britain.
Modrich, born in 1946, is a professor of biochemistry at Duke University in the US.
Sancar, 69, was born in the small Turkish town of Savur. He could have become a professional football player — Turkey's national junior team courted him to become their goalkeeper — but he chose to focus on his academic studies instead.
After working as a doctor in the countryside, he resumed his biochemistry studies at the age of 27, and then went to the University of Texas in Dallas.
He is now a professor of biochemistry and biochemics at University of North Carolina in the US.
He told the Nobel Foundation he was stunned by his win.
“I have just got a call half an hour ago. My wife took it and woke me up. I wasn't expecting it at all. I was very surprised,” he said, adding: “I tried my best to be coherent.”
The Nobel awards week continues with the announcements for the two most closely-watched prizes: on Thursday the winner of the literature prize will be announced, followed by the peace prize on Friday, which will be announced in Oslo.
The economics prize wraps up this year's Nobel season on Monday.