January 20, 2019

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.

Israeli researchers team up with City of Hope to fight cancer

Dr. Israel Vlodavsky, whose research has been funded periodically by ICRF, in his lab in Israel. Photo courtesy of the Israel Cancer Research Fund

For the past six months, the Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) has been collaborating with City of Hope in Duarte to advance understanding of cancer and further develop life-saving treatments and prevention strategies.

The Jacki and Bruce Barron Cancer Research Scholars Program at City of Hope has facilitated the exchange of resources, ideas and knowledge between ICRF’s cancer investigators — who are from four Israeli universities — and top researchers at City of Hope. The joint venture was made possible thanks to a $5 million grant from the Harvey L. Miller Family Foundation, which previously had separate philanthropic ties to both the ICRF and City of Hope.

“This relationship with City of Hope is validating for us,” said Eric Heffler, national executive director of ICRF. “It helps us raise awareness and continue on with our world-class research.”

Founded in 1975, ICRF has supported the work of numerous Nobel Prize winners responsible for milestone discoveries in cancer research. It has awarded more than 2,300 grants to investigators at 24 institutions throughout Israel. The New York-based nonprofit, with offices in six cities, including Los Angeles and Coachella Valley, aims to keep many of Israel’s premier scientists at home instead of having them globetrotting to secure research funding.

City of Hope is a pioneer in the fields of bone marrow transplantation, genetics, and independent research and treatment for cancer and diabetes.

The new program features four key initiatives:

• Three $150,000 collaborative grants awarded annually to support the research of City of Hope and Israeli scientists.

• Two post-doctoral fellowships at City of Hope for promising Israeli scientists selected by ICRF.

• Six-month sabbaticals for established Israeli scientists at City of Hope and for City of Hope researchers in Israel.

• An annual symposium for City of Hope and ICRF researchers to share findings.

The program’s first symposium is scheduled for November on City of Hope’s main campus. The symposium is expected to feature presentations from Israeli and American research partners who will be finishing the first year of their work together, a talk from an Israeli scientist who has been on sabbatical at City of Hope, and keynote addresses from high-profile cancer researchers.

Matthew Ruchin, associate director of administration for City of Hope’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, said both institutions initially were apprehensive about the distance separating their respective researchers.

“We expected to encounter obstacles with that,” Ruchin said. “But that hasn’t been the case.”

Ruchin said that in the past, faculty at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Lautenberg Center for Immunology and Cancer Research could not send massive data files over the internet or ship clinical research samples to City of Hope, and vice versa. Now, he said, “laboratories that are thousands of miles apart can feel like they’re right next door to each other.”

The partnership with ICRF is the only one City of Hope is engaged in that involves formal ties with medical institutions outside the United States. It has similar arrangements with Caltech and the UC Riverside faculty.

For Rob Densen, ICRF president, a central aim of the program is to showcase the ICRF’s mission to the Jewish community of Greater Los Angeles. On a trip to L.A. in early March, Densen told the Journal that many potential donors hadn’t even heard of the organization. He said he hoped to capitalize on the exposure a relationship with City of Hope — whose A-list celebrity support makes it widely known — could bring to ICRF.

“You have a tremendously diverse Jewish community in Los Angeles. You know the one thing they all share? Cancer. It cuts across geography, race, creed and religion,” Densen said. “I think [ICRF] is the perfect charity. It’s Israel and it’s cancer, the scourge of humankind.”

Densen also hopes that more awareness about ICRF will aid in Israel’s fight against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, as it demonstrates Israel’s impact on a matter of world concern.

“This is a stab right in the eye of BDS,” he said. “And it fits in perfectly with the theme of tikkun olam, repairing not just your neighborhood, your countr, or your religion, but repairing the entire world. That’s what animates my involvement here. Cancer research from Israel benefits everyone.”

Dr. Israel Vlodavsky, a professor in the Cancer and Vascular Biology Research Center at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, said his groundbreaking research on the curtailing of tumor growth has been funded periodically by ICRF since 1982 and consistently for the last 10 years. Vlodavsky, who traveled to Los Angeles in March with Heffler and Densen, said the partnership with City of Hope should play a key role in furthering ICRF’s efforts to fund Israel’s cancer researchers.

“This type of partnership will continue to allow ICRF to find promising young scientists during the most exciting time in cancer research,” Vlodavsky said.

Although both City of Hope and ICRF have reputations for producing results in cancer research, their collaborative efforts so far have not produced any major breakthroughs.

“Research is a funny thing,” Ruchin said. “It takes time for it to progress. We’ve only been at this for six months now, so we’re really focused on the building of relationships with colleagues in Israel. I’m more excited to see how things progress in the next three to four years.”

U.S. cancer research group lauds Israeli scientist Alexander Levitzki

Alexander Levitzki of Hebrew University was named the recipient of the 2013 Award for Outstanding Achievement in Chemistry in Chemical Research.

The prestigious award was presented Tuesday by The American Association for Cancer Research. Levitzki also delivered a lecture to the association.

Levitzki, a professor of biological chemistry at the Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences, received the honor “in recognition of his contributions to signal transduction therapy and his work on the development of tyrosine kinase inhibitors as effective agents against cancer,” according to the association.

The Israeli scientist has won numerous other prominent awards, including the Israel Prize in biochemistry and the Nauta Award in Pharmacochemistry, the highest award from the European Federation for Medicinal Chemistry.

Israeli scientist wins prestigious cancer research prize

Israeli scientist Yosef Shiloh became the first Israeli researcher to win a prestigious award given by the American Association for Cancer Research.

Shiloh, of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Medical School, was announced as the winner of the Clowes Award on Jan. 23. He will receive the award, including a $10,000 grant, at the AACR annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., in April, where he will deliver a lecture on his research.

Shiloh has devoted his research to ataxia-telangiectasia, a rare, neurodegenerative disease that is hereditary and is more prevalent among people of North African origin, as well as in the Palestinian and Bedouin communities.