November 16, 2018

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

Photo from Wikipedia

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.

Roast for Richard; A Wish Is Granted; And the World Tastes Good; New Faces X 2

Roast for Richard

City of Hope honored civic leader and philanthropist Richard S. Ziman at a toast and roast Sept, 14. Ziman was presented with City of Hope’s Spirit of Life Award and President’s Award for his longstanding commitment to the advancement of science and the care of patients with cancer. The event raised $1.6 million for City of Hope’s groundbreaking cancer research and treatment programs.

A Wish Is Granted

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Rabbi Elianna Yolkut was installed Sept. 16 at Adat Ari El, a conservative synagogue in Valley Village. Yolkut was ordained this past spring from the University of Judaism’s Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies.

New Faces II

Jewish National Fund (JNF) has hired Donna De La Paz as regional zone director. Virginia-born De La Paz has worked in the Jewish communal world since 1988, most recently as the associate director of development in Florida for the Anti-Defamation League. Prior to that she was executive director of the Miami and Houston offices of the American Jewish Committee. Her first Jewish communal job was for B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO) where, as a teenager, she was imbued with a love for Israel.

“Donna possesses all the qualities we look for in a leader,” said Russell F. Robinson, CEO of JNF of America. “She is intelligent, creative, thoughtful, innovative, but most importantly, she is passionate about Israel. For someone to convey to others — donors and lay leaders alike — what JNF does, its value to life in Israel and the role it plays in the growth, security and continuity of the Jewish homeland, they need to care deeply. Donna does and we are excited to welcome her aboard and look forward to what she can accomplish.”

With a background in education, De La Paz began her professional career as a teacher on track to become a school principal. Somewhere along the way the track shifted, and when deciding what she wanted to do with her life, she recalled that her happiest moment was the summer she spent in Israel with BBYO.

“I called BBYO for a job,” she said, “and haven’t looked back since.

As JNF’s zone director she hopes to build a strong board who will help her better educate the community about who JNF is and the work it does.

“People just don’t know the breadth and scope of all that we do,” she said, “and we do so much.”

For more information, call 323-964-1400.

And the World Tastes Good

Yummy, was the word for the night Southern California’s most prominent Jewish leaders and elite raised in excess of $200,000 to benefit student scholarships at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem at the third annual “A Chocolate Affaire,” sponsored by American Friends of the Hebrew University (AFHU). Almost 300 guests wandered about the event, an extravagant evening of gourmet food, cocktails, live music and chocolate tasting, in a beautiful home in Holmby Hills Sept. 9.

Represented there were various treats like Carvel Ice Cream, and gourmet cuisine was provided by The Kitchen for Exploring Foods. Beacon Restaurant donated signature desserts for the third year in a row. Chocolate and dessert sponsors besides Carvel included Chrissie’s Cookie’s, Leonida’s Belgian Chocolate, My Mother’s Brownies, Osteria Latini and See’s Candies.

Among those who were seen noshing shamelessly (or was that just me?) were guest speaker Shaul Druckmann, a Hebrew University student ambassador and doctoral candidate in neuroscience, who shared his personal experiences and stressed the need for scholarship support; AFHU chairman Richard Ziman; attorney Patricia Glaser, Western Region president of AFHU; several members of the AFHU board of directors; “American Idol’s” Paula Abdul, and Peter Willner, AFHU national executive director

AFHU is a national, not-for-profit organization that provides programs, events, and fundraising activities to support Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel’s foremost center of higher education and research. AFHU’s Western Region is helping to lead the way in ensuring that the university’s 24,000 students have the resources they need to become leaders and innovators in Israel and around the world.

Five Jews Nab Nobel Science Wins

When David J. Gross, a winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in physics, was asked whether he was Jewish, he told a reporter, “What do you think? Of course!”

The same affirmative answer applied to five out of six 2004 science Nobel Laureates. Two are Israelis, three are Americans — all from Southern California universities — and two of these Americans have close ties to Israel.

The Israeli winners, Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion in Haifa, shared the $1.35 million prize in chemistry with Irwin A. Rose, professor emeritus at UC Irvine.

They were recognized for their research on the regulatory process taking place inside human cells, a discovery leading to the development of drugs against cancer and degenerative diseases.

“The practical applications are too numerous to mention,” said Rose, generally addressed as Ernie, who was quick to give major credit for the prize-winning work to Hershko.

In the typical research collaboration between professors and their graduate students, Rose became Hershko’s doctoral thesis adviser when he spent part of his 1972 sabbatical year at Israel’s Hadassah Medical Center.

“I took my wife, four children and mother-in-law and we settled in Jerusalem,” he said.

Ciechanover, in turn, became Hershko’s graduate student and over the next 19 years, the two Israelis spent the summers at Rose’s lab at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

Ciechanover is director of the David and Janet Polak Center for Cancr Research and Vascular Biology, a project of the Southern California chapter of the American Technion Society.

The two Technion researchers are the first Israelis to receive Nobel Prizes in a scientific discipline and their work has been supported for many years by the New York-based Israel Cancer Research Fund.

Jubilant Israelis liked the Nobel award to the Olympic gold medal won by Israeli windsurfer Gal Friedman. The prize was also seen as a telling answer to some European academicians who have called for a boycott of Israeli scholars.

Rose was born in Brooklyn, attended Hebrew school, but became a “confirmed secularist” at age 10. Now 78, he and his wife live in Leisure World in Orange County, are active in the retirement community’s Concerned Citizens group and express their Jewish identity mainly through their ties with Israel, he said.

For the Nobel prize in physics, Gross, director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara, shared the award with professor H. David Politzer of Caltech and professor Frank Wilczek of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Nobel Foundation recognized their development of quantum chromodynamics, the study of the mysterious “strong force” that holds the nuclei of the atom together, even as the protein’s electrical charges try to blow them apart.

The development is seen by many scientists as a major step toward a “Theory of Everything” — a single set of equations to explain all phenomena from the force holding atoms together to the gravitational fields that hold planets in orbit.

Colleagues confirmed that Politzer is Jewish, but he did not respond to an interview request, and former Los Angeles Times science editor Irving Bengelsdorf described the Caltech physicist as unusually shy and sensitive.

Politzer affirmed this description by refusing to attend a press conference in his honor, despite the pleading of Caltech President David Baltimore.

Gross, who previously taught at Princeton, was more outgoing. As a teenager and young man, he lived for eight years in Israel, while his father served as economic adviser to the government and founded the business administration school at the Hebrew University.

The younger Gross received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Hebrew University.

“For one day, until Hershko’s and Ciechanover’s award was announced, I was considered the first ‘Israeli’ scientist to have won a Nobel Prize,” Gross said.

For five years, he directed the Jerusalem Winter School at the Hebrew University’s Institute for Advanced Studies and will be back in Israel in April to participate in a symposium on Albert Einstein.

The figure for the total number of Jewish Nobelists varies slightly, depending on the strictness of the “Who’s a Jew?” definition. But the figure cited most frequently is 161, or 22 percent of Nobel Prizes in all categories awarded between 1901-2003. With the 2004 additions, the total apparently stands at 166.