The phone call medical researchers yearn for is the one from Stockholm telling them they have won the Nobel Prize in medicine. When it didn’t come this year to Dr. Avram Hershko, a professor of biochemistry at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, he figured he would just have to wait another year.
But two days later on Oct. 6, while he was at a pool with his four granddaughters, his cousin in Jerusalem called his cell phone to say she had just heard on the radio that he had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
“Are you sure?” he recalled asking her.
Hershko then raced home to find a message from the Nobel committee on his answering machine.
On Dec. 9, Hershko and his graduate assistant at the time, Aaron Ciechanover, along with an American scientist who collaborated with them, Irwin Rose of the University of California, received the Nobel Prize in science during ceremonies in Stockholm. They will share the $1.3 million prize.
This is the first time Israelis have won the Nobel Prize in a scientific field. At a press conference after the announcement of the award, Ciechanover noted that the human brain is the only natural resource Israel possesses, and this award demonstrates what Israelis can achieve. And Hershko said he was excited to be able to bring “good news to the people of Israel.”
The award, Hershko said in a phone interview last week from Haifa, was something he had never really considered until “my American friends told me, ‘You will win the Nobel Prize, if you live long enough.’ ”
Now 66, Hershko said he began the research that led to the prize when he was a doctoral fellow 35 years ago. The breakthrough came 10 years later when the three men discovered how cells break down proteins that have been damaged or outlived their usefulness. Their research has led to new approaches to cancer, cystic fibrosis, immunological dysfunction and neurological degenerative disorders.
Based upon their research, the Federal Drug Administration late last year approved a new drug against cancer, Velcade. The drug has shown to have what the FDA Commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan called a “significant effect” on patients with multiple myeloma who have not responded to other treatment. Multiple myeloma is the second most prevalent blood cancer in the United States, afflicting some 45,000 people.
“There will be more drugs, hopefully,” stemming from their discovery, Hershko said. “But these things take time.”
He said he is not hoping to develop drugs himself, but rather to continue his research into the Ubiquitin system.
“If you do too many things in science, you end up doing nothing,” he said. “I concentrate on the thing I can do most, and that is basic science. …The Ubiquitin is involved in many things. I am working on how protein is involved in cell division. Cancer has a lot to do with how the Ubiquitin system controls cell division.”
Born in Hungary in 1937, Hershko immigrated to Israel in 1950. During the Holocaust, his father was sent into forced labor and Hershko, his brother and mother were sent from one Jewish ghetto to the next.
Both he and Ciechanover have between them more than 30 international honors, including the Israel Prize for Biology and Biochemistry and the Wolf Prize for Medicine.
Born in Israel in 1947 after his parents emigrated from Poland just before World War II, Ciechanover, 57, said he too continues to work on the Ubiquitin system.
“The system is very wide,” he explained.
Asked how the Nobel Prize would increase his zeal for his work, Ciechanover replied: “I was always very enthusiastic about what I am doing and I hope to continue to do it.”
Hershko too said he has a “lot of fun and excitement in my work. I feel I can still make important contributions. As long as I feel I can make contributions, I will continue to work.”
Asked about all the prizes he has received over the years, he observed: “You usually don’t get any more prizes after the Nobel Prize. And that’s fine with me.”