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Two Israelis win the nobel prize for chemistry

Nobel Prize in chemistry

Two Israeli scientists along with an American scientist have won the 2004 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their pioneering research on the mechanism of dissolution of cell proteins. Their work has led to breakthroughs in the understanding and treatment of diseases such as cancer, Alzheimers, Parkinsons disease and cystic fibrosis.

Prof. Avram Hershko
Prof. Aaron J. Ciechanover

Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko from the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa) together with Irwin Rose from the University of California, Irvine have won the 2004 Nobel Prize for chemistry for their discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation. Proteins carry out and regulate all the processes in the cells, shaping it along the lines dictated by our genes. While most scientists in the late 70's and early 80's were concentrating on understanding the way proteins build cells and control the living body Hershko and his then student Ciechanover were interested in the way unnecessary proteins are being destroyed. Once a protein has done its job, it has to be disposed of. This is the process of protein degradation that Hershko and Ciechanover wanted to understand. They discovered that this process uses a small protein called ubiquitin to mark the proteins that have to be degraded at the right time and the right place in the cell. 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 so there is no control over cell division.

The discovery and understanding of the ubiquitin mechanism has already produced a potentially life-saving drug: in 2003 the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had approved a new drug called Velcadean injection-based treatment for multiple myelomaa cancer of the bone marrow that affects more than 15,000 Americans each year. More widespread applications are now anticipated for such diseases as asthma, arthritis, multiple sclerosis as well as degenerative illnesses such as Alzheimers and Parkinsons disease.

Although Israelis have received Nobel Prizes for Peace (1978, 1994) and Literature (1966) and an Israeli-born psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who lives in the US, won the Nobel in Economics (2002), it is the first time an Israeli has won a Nobel in science. The Nobel announcement caught Hershko and Ciechanover by surprise. After wining the distinguished Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 2000 there was speculation about their chances of winning a Nobel Prize for medicine but the final decision to award them the chemistry prize made them all the more proud coming from the field of Biochemistry. As has already happened many times in the past, the first moments after the announcement of the Nobel committee were confusing. The family of Professor Hershko was busy looking for him when he was finally located at the swimming pool with his wife and granddaughters an hour later. Professor Ciechanover received the news after his son answered the phone and a polite man with a Swedish accent asked to speak to his parents.

Iddo Genuth

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