Howard Cedar, M.D., Ph.D.
Chairman, Department of Developmental Biology and Cancer Research
Hebrew University - Hadassah Medical School
Recipient of ICRF's First Professorship Grant in 1988
Science depends on society. Only a community that cares for and understands the importance of knowledge and its role in improving mankind will support research. In this regard, the ICRF has played an important role in my own research as well as that of Israel, in general. Their broad perspective includes within it the idea that basic research stands at the foundation of applied medical science and in this way their support goes a long way towards perpetuating a culture of Tikun Olam. By striving for excellence it has made a major contribution to science in Israel.
My family and I came on Aliyah in 1973 just before the Yom Kippur war and settled in Jerusalem where I had a beginning position at the Hebrew University Medical School. Despite the difficulties encountered by all immigrants, military obligations and the many disruptions that were then a natural part of life in Israel, work in the lab proceeded very nicely. I discovered the unique talents of the “Israeli Doctoral Student” with his broad, mature outlook on life and on science, as well as his wonderful sense of motivation and creativity. I quickly learned that by working together it was possible to carry out excellent science and strive to decipher key biological problems.
The early years in Israel were very productive. Together with the laboratory of Prof. Aharon Razin, we came up with an idea for solving the problem of how genes are regulated. This new concept showed that, while genetic material contains the text needed for making all of the components that make up the human body, there is also a system for annotating this text so the cells know exactly how and when to read this information. This is carried out by a chemical modification called DNA methylation. Every place where a gene is methylated it is not read, while unmethylated genes can be read and translated into proteins.
This discovery represented a real breakthrough in understanding how our genetic information is used to generate a full functioning body. All of the seminal principles of DNA methylation were established in our laboratory in the late 70’s and early 80’s, but there was still much to be done in order to appreciate the full extent of this mechanism and to understand its role in medicine.
This is where the ICRF came into the scene. Even though our laboratory concentrated almost exclusively on basic research, the ICRF was willing to support our work, giving us the opportunity to expand our horizons and, in this way, contribute to the emergence of a new understanding of how DNA methylation works and how it participates in aging, cancer and other disease processes. With much of the background coming from DNA methylation studies done in other cancer laboratories, we developed a new model for how this annotation influences tumor biology and this is leading to new ways for treating, or even preventing, many forms of cancer. Because of our work, many clinical trials using anti-methylation agents are currently underway and some of these are very promising.