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Obituary: Frederick Sanger

Biochemist Frederick Sanger is unique in being the only Briton to win two Nobel Prizes and the only scientist to win the Nobel prize for Chemistry twice. His work to understand the structure of proteins and nucleic acids (such as DNA) helped to bring about a genetic revolution in biology and medicine.

But he is best remembered by people with diabetes for his work to uncover the basic structure of insulin – a vital step in the production of synthetic human insulins that have since led to major advances in the treatment of diabetes worldwide.

Born in 1918, Sanger studied natural sciences at St John's College Cambridge and graduated in 1940 after specialising in biochemistry. As a pacifist and conscientious objector he was granted unconditional exemption from military service during the Second World War, allowing him to complete his PhD.

First Nobel prize

He remained in Cambridge after the war ended, where his first major accomplishment was to establish the complete sequence of amino acid building blocks that make up cow insulin – one of the very few proteins available commercially in pure form. His work proved for the first time that proteins – molecules key to life – have a precise chemical composition. It earned him his first Nobel prize for Chemistry in 1958 and was key to the subsequent realisation of the mechanisms by which DNA codes for proteins.

In 1962, Sanger moved to the new Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology and turned his attention to the problem of sequencing DNA. His research group was the first to produce a whole genome sequence (over 5,000 nucleic acid bases from the virus phiX174) and the first to sequence human genetic material (over 16,500 bases from human mitochondria – the tiny power stations that energise living cells).

Sanger sequencing

The technique he developed in 1977, known as "Sanger sequencing", allowed long stretches of DNA to be rapidly and accurately sequenced. It was used to complete the first ever human genome sequence in 2003 and is still in widespread use today, since it allows scientists to read the human DNA code and understand how particular sequence variations influence the risk of conditions such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. For this achievement Sanger was awarded his second Nobel Prize in 1980. In 1992, the Sanger Centre (now the Sanger Institute) was founded in his honour only a few miles from his home. Today it is one of the world's foremost genomic research centres.

An incredibly modest man despite his many achievements, Sanger avoided the limelight and claimed that he was merely "a chap who messed about in his lab." He declined a knighthood because he did not want to be called "Sir" but was awarded the Order of Merit – one of Britain's highest honours – in 1986. He retired at the age of 65 to devote more time to his garden and to "messing about in boats".

"One of the greatest figures in the history of chemistry"

Dr Alasdair Rankin, Diabetes UK Director of Research said, "As well as being one of the greatest figures in the history of chemistry and one of the greatest British scientists of the 20th century, Fred Sanger also made a difference to the lives of millions of people with diabetes around the world. By sequencing the insulin protein, he helped advance our understanding of diabetes and kickstarted the development of man-made human insulins, which ended reliance on insulin from cattle. Everyone with Type 1 diabetes, and many with Type 2, needs to take insulin to manage their condition and today most people prefer human insulins to those that come from animals as there is less chance of allergic reactions."

"A unique contribution to the modern world"

Colin Blakemore, Professor of neuroscience and philosophy at the School of Advanced Study in London and former chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said, "The death of a great person usually provokes hyperbole, but it is impossible to exaggerate the impact of Fred Sanger's work on modern biomedical science. His invention of the two critical technical advances – for sequencing proteins and nucleic acids – opened up the fields of molecular biology, genetics and genomics. He remains the only person to have won two Nobel prizes in chemistry – recognising his unique contribution to the modern world. Fred Sanger was a real hero of 21st century British science."

"The father of the genomic era"

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said, "Fred can fairly be called the father of the genomic era: his work laid the foundations of humanity's ability to read and understand the genetic code, which has revolutionised biology and is today contributing to transformative improvements in healthcare."

Dr Frederick Sanger, one of the greatest research pioneers: born Rendcomb 13 August 1918; married 1940 Margaret Joan Howe; (two sons, Robin and Peter, and a daughter, Sally Joan); died 19 November 2013.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.Wikimedia Commons

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