November 19, 2019

Avram Hershko Talks Cancer Research, Winning the Nobel and His Grandchildren

Prominent American and Israeli cancer scientists convened in November at City of Hope’s Duarte campus for a symposium to network, take part in lectures and share groundbreaking research. Through the Jacki and Bruce Barron Cancer Research Scholars’ Program, scientists funded by City of Hope and the Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) work together regularly to combine forces in the fight against cancer.

Among the featured lecturers was Avram Hershko, 79, an Israeli Nobel laureate in Chemistry whose breakthroughs in the field of cell division have helped the medical community treat certain forms of cancer. The Journal spoke with Hershko about his research and its applications, and the value of international collaboration in the field of cancer research.

Jewish Journal: How did your research help with understanding cancer?

Avram Hershko: I was working on a basic science problem, which is how proteins degrade in cells. It turned out to be very important in understanding health and cancer because proteins control cell division and cancer is actually uncontrolled cell division. So if protein degradation is not working well, then cell division is not working, or working too well. That’s what cancer is.

JJ: What about the drug Velcade?

AH: It was not developed by me, but developed by the pharmaceutical industry. But it was based on our research. This drug inhibits a certain enzyme in the protein degradation system called the ubiquitin system. It’s very effective in fighting some cancers, like multiple myeloma and bone marrow cancer. It made a huge change in the treatment for those cancers. Now, many people can have many more years of good-quality life.

“Remember, cancer is not one disease. It’s thousands of different diseases.”

JJ: Why did you want to come to this symposium?

AH: There are collaborations happening between City of Hope scientists and Israeli scientists, and I was very curious to hear about everything they are doing. It’s always good in science to have interaction. Science is very international. That’s how science progresses, like we have here with City of Hope scientists working with Israeli scientists promoted by the ICRF. Also, I wanted to see Los Angeles again. It’s always nice to come back here.

JJ: Are you still performing research?

AH: I’m still doing research and being supported by ICRF. I have an active laboratory at the Technion medical school. I’m not retired, which is an achievement in and of its own. I like to do experiments myself. I do a couple every week. I have a research group of students and technicians who help me in my research. I’m still working mostly on the role of the ubiquitin system and its controls on cell division.

JJ: Many call Technion the MIT of the Middle East. So, Technion or MIT?

AH: Well, the Technion is better than MIT because it has a medical school. Otherwise, MIT is quite good. It’s OK.

JJ: Moving forward, what’s the next big step in your field of research? What are you working toward?

AH: Remember, cancer is not one disease. It’s thousands of different diseases. But they have a common denominator and that is uncontrolled cell division. If I go after more knowledge in cell division, it may lead in the future to some common treatments for many cancers. That is my idea, anyway.

JJ: What was it like winning the Nobel Prize?

AH: Normally, I’m not one for ceremonies, but it’s the highest recognition of achievement in science. It was very pleasant. People in Israel watched it on live television. That was a very proud moment for Israel and for my family. It was very nice to share it with my wife, three kids and all my grandchildren.

JJ: What do you do for fun when you’re not in the laboratory?

AH: I spend time with my six grandchildren. I won’t tell you about them because if I start I won’t stop.