Howard Cedar, M.D., Ph.D. has won numerous prizes for his pioneering work in DNA Methylation, a molecular process that turns genes on and off.
Prof. Howard Cedar was born in New York. He received his B.Sc. in Mathematics from M.I.T. and then went on to do an M.D. and Ph.D. in Microbiology at N.Y.U., followed by postdoctoral research at N.Y.U. and then the National Institutes of Health. In 1973, he immigrated to Israel where he joined the faculty of the Hebrew University, becoming a full professor in 1981. Prof. Cedar has the distinction of being ICRF’s first Research Professorship recipient, the highest and most prestigious ICRF grant category, and his ground-breaking research work has been supported continuously by the ICRF since 1987.
Prof. Cedar is the recipient of numerous awards for his research, including the Israel Prize in Biology in 1999 and the Wolf Prize in Medicine in 2008, which is described as Israel’s’ equivalent to the Nobel Prize. He received the highly-prestigious Emet Prize in Life Sciences in 2009; and, more recently, became one of five recipients of the 2011 Canada Gairdner International Awards. The awards were created by the Gairdner Foundation to recognize the achievements of medical researchers whose work contributes significantly to improving the quality of human life. The Gairdner prizes have become Canada’s foremost awards in the field of biomedical science. Seventy-six of the awardees have gone on to win Nobel Prizes.
Prof. Cedar’s laboratory is involved in understanding how genes are regulated during development. Every person inherits his genes from his parents, and since the genetic material is copied in its entirety before every cell division, the full complement of genes is found in every cell of the body. Interestingly, each tissue expresses only a subset of these genes – those that are necessary for its function. For this reason, there are molecular mechanisms within the cell which are used to turn genes on and off and, in this way, modulate their activity.
One of the most important mechanisms for repressing genes is DNA methylation. By modifying a gene with a chemical cap (methyl group), the cell effectively turns off that gene. In Cedar’s laboratory, they are trying to understand how methylation works, how these gene-specific patterns are established, and what are the factors that allow the cell either to add new methyl groups or take away existing ones. In this way, we will eventually understand how genes are turned on and off in a programmed manner during development.
It is well known that DNA methylation is abnormal in cancer and that this brings about the silencing of many genes. Recently, Prof. Cedar has succeeded in decoding the mechanism of this process, and has shown that genes destined for silencing are actually “marked” in normal cells from early in development. These results imply that many properties of cancer cells are actually preprogrammed. This observation should help in the development of new approaches for targeting and, thereby, preventing the fundamental pathology of cancer.