Aaron Ciechanover, M.D., D.Sc. (right) and Avram Hershko, M.D., Ph.D. (left) became the first Israelis to win the “Nobel Prize in Chemistry” in 2004 for discovery of the Ubiquitin System, the body’s method of removing damaged proteins.
Prof. Avram Hershko was born in Hungary, and immigrated to Israel in 1950. Since 1971, he has been on the faculty at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, and was appointed as a Distinguished Professor in 1998. Prof. Aaron Ciechanover was born in Haifa, Israel. In 1976, he joined the laboratory of Dr. Avram Hershko as a graduate student, followed by post-doctoral studies at MIT. He returned to the Technion in 1984, and was appointed as a Distinguished Professor in 2002.
Five years after Prof. Hershko started his research at the Technion, his team (which included his then student, Aaron Ciechanover) discovered the system that degrades proteins – the ubiquitin system. “Proteins,” Prof. Hershko explains, “are the machines that carry out and regulate all processes in the cells. However, once a protein has done its job, it has to be disposed of. We needed to understand this process of protein degradation.” “We found that a small protein, called ubiquitin, marks the proteins to be degraded at the right time and the right place in the cell,” Prof. Ciechanover relates. “If proteins are not degraded at the right time, the cell continues to divide unchecked. This is what happens in many cancer cells; something has gone wrong in the ubiquitin system.”
ICRF’s Scientific Review Panel recognized the potential of this research. Dr. Ciechanover was a postdoctoral-fellow at MIT and wanted to return to Israel to continue his research, but he needed funding. He was awarded an ICRF Research Career Development Award in 1985, which enabled him to realize his talent and potential in Israel. ICRF has been funding him and this research into the process of protein degradation ever since, and awarded Profs. Hershko and Ciechanover ICRF’s coveted Research Professorships, the highest research grant designation, in 2002 and 2003 respectively.
In May of 2003, the FDA announced the approval of a new drug, Velcade, to treat multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow. Millennium Pharmaceuticals, which developed Velcade, stated that it represents a “completely new approach to treating cancer.” Velcade is the first drug specifically targeted against the ubiquitin system. It was developed based on thirty years of research by Profs. Hershko and Ciechanover. “We are sure that many other new drugs will be discovered that are targeted against specific processes that go wrong in the ubiquitin system in different types of cancers,” remarked Profs. Hershko and Ciechanover. “These include cancer of the colon, breast, prostate, and melanomas.”
Both Profs. Hershko and Ciechanover have received numerous awards validating their scientific achievements, but their most significant recognition came in 2004, when they became the first Israelis ever to win the “Nobel Prize in Chemistry” for the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation.
“I am very grateful to the Israel Cancer Research Fund for supporting the work of cancer researchers in Israel, including my own research,” said Prof. Hershko. “ICRF seeded my scientific trip,” Prof. Ciechanover noted. “My research is a product of ICRF.”