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Jews Kvell As Israelis Win First Nobel Prize for Science

October 7, 2004
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As Israel captured its first Nobel prize in science this week, Jews worldwide kvelled over the recognition of excellence in a discipline that has long been a hallmark of the Jewish state. The Nobel prize in chemistry was awarded Wednesday to two Israelis, Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion in Haifa, and an American, Irwin Rose of the University of California at Irvine, for a discovery that advances the fight against cancer.

The three share the $1.3 million prize along with its international acclaim.

At a Wednesday news conference in Israel, Ciechanover, 57, accepted the prize in a uniquely Israeli tone: “The human brain is the only natural resource that Israel possesses.”

“This is proof of the kinds of things Israeli scientists can achieve,” Ciechanover said.

His mentor, Hungarian-born Hershko, 67, also framed the win as a national triumph: “We’re very excited, and very happy to bring good news to the people of Israel.”

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the scientists found and named the protein ubiquitin, which marks other proteins for destruction once they have carried out their task, a process that regulates the body. Alternatively, unwanted proteins that linger in the body can cause disease like cancer.

The trio’s discovery led to the creation of the cancer drug Velcade, approved last year in the United States, that targets sick cells. Previously, cancer treatments had a tendency to kill cells indiscriminately, a debilitating and potentially lethal complication for the patient.

“We discovered the process by which the body exercises quality control,” Ciechanover said.

Asked in a phone interview with JTA if the attention on Israel overshadowed his honor, Rose — who said that the Israelis worked in his lab at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia at different times between 1977 to 1996 — said, “absolutely not.”

“They deserve this prize for the important observation” they made, he told JTA, stressing the “important contribution from the Technion.”

In fact, Rose said, he never thought he would win the Nobel, but “was confident” that Hershko would.

“There’s no question about it that he did the major work in this field. I was a contributor and I never felt that I was really the key person,” he said.

Several Jews were among the Nobel laureates announced this week, but there was special pride in the accomplishment of the Israelis.

Upon hearing the news, Melvyn Bloom, executive vice president of the American Technion Society, instantly recalled the image of Gal Fridman — the windsurfer who won Israel’s first Olympic gold in Athens two months ago — “wrapping himself in the Israeli flag, and they were playing Hatikvah.”

“This one I feel the same way about in a larger sense,” said Bloom, whose society raises funds for the Technion.

After all these years and the tremendous achievement of the scientific community in the Jewish state, “this is the first time that Israeli scientists have won the Nobel prize,” he said.

Jewish institutions touched by the scientists felt a special glory.

“This is a mark of distinction for Israeli science in general and for the

Technion in particular,” said Yitzhak Apeloig, president of what is known officially as the Technion Israel Institute for Technology.

For its part, Hebrew University e-mailed JTA to note that the two scientists were among its graduates.

The Israel Cancer Research Fund, an American group that funds cancer research in Israel, stated its pride in a news release. “We invested in this research early” and “are now reaping the rewards of that investment,” said its president, Dr. Yashar Hirshaut, a medical oncologist and associate professor at Weill-Cornell Medical College-New York Hospital.

The group has funded Ciechanover for 22 years, and both Israeli scientists are receiving a grant of $50,000 a year for seven years.

The news of Hershko’s award was also making a big splash in Hungary, where his family survived the Holocaust. His family immigrated to Israel in 1950, when, he told JTA, it was “the last chance to leave before the Iron Curtain fell and closed the borders.”

The award could also be a boon to those fighting boycotts in academia against Israeli scholars — a phenomenon that has risen amid the intifada.

“It certainly should help convince people in the world who might not be paying attention that there’s a lot of great research going on in Israel, but people who are intending to be biased, if you will, may not be convinced by anything,” said Andrew Marks, founder and president of the International Academic Friends of Israel and chairman of the physiology department at Columbia University.

Meanwhile, the scientists’ discovery has major implications.

“It is extremely significant because it showed that the destruction of the components of the cell is actually controlled,” Richard Ikeda, health scientist administrator at the National Institutes of Health, told JTA.

“Each of the pieces are there for a specific amount of time and they have to go away in a controlled fashion,” or can become cancerous, he said.

The Velcade drug has “been useful on patients in which other treatments haven’t succeeded,” he said. “We don’t necessarily know its full potential yet.”

More than 8,000 scientific publications have been written about the discovery and thousands of papers and conferences have been devoted to the subject, according to the Technion.

In 2000, Hershko and Ciechanover received the Albert and Mary Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, which is considered a precursor to the Nobel Prize. They are also both past recipients of the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest civilian honor.

Ciechanover, Hershko, and Rose, 78, will receive their Nobel in Stockholm in December.

Though they are the first Israelis to win a Nobel in science, they are not the first to win the prestigious honor.

Shmuel Yosef (Shai) Agnon shared the literature prize with Swedish writer Nelly Sachs in1996.

In 1978, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat won the peace prize for the historic accord between their countries.

And after the Oslo agreements were signed in 1993, the Nobel prize went to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

(JTA correspondents Dan Baron in Jerusalem and Agnes Bohm in Budapest contributed to this report.)

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