Haim Cedar, 2011 Gairdner Award Winner, Calls for More Allocation of Government Money into Research

Winner of the prestigious medical award, Haim Cedar, in a message to the decision makers: "The government must allocate more money to research – it's the inexpensive method for curing"

Calcalist, 20 April, 2011 - The 2011 Gairdner Award was granted to Israeli professors Haim Cedar and Aharon Razin for their contribution to the treatment of cancer.  The president and chairman of the Gairdner Foundation came to Israel to grant the prize and are convinced that they will locate additional candidates in the future: "Israelis just have the right DNA"

Calcalist Interview by Lior Ben David and Tomer Avital

Prof. Haim CedarAmong the winners of the prestigious Gairdner award, granted to prominent researchers in the field of medicine every year, are two Israeli professors from the Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada at the Hebrew University Medical School: Prof. Haim Cedar and Prof. Aharon Razin.  Razin and Cedar won the award for their research in genetics, which comprised a breakthrough in the field of genetic diseases, including Prader-Willi Syndrome, Angelman Syndrome and cancer.

Cedar, who continues to lecture to medical students at the Hebrew University, is a 1999 Israel Award winner for biological research and a father of six sons, one of whom is the film director Yossef Cedar.  The discovery that afforded him the current award is called "methylation", reflecting a deep understanding of the way in which our cells read the genetic data embedded therein.

"Like an instruction manual for the body"

"We all inherit genetic information from our parents", Cedar explains the scientific discovery, "it's like an instruction manual for assembling a body, detailed for all of the organs, tissue types and cells.  This book is in our DNA, in our chromosomes.  It contains words, lines and chapters, except that the letters are chemicals.  Each cell contains the entire manual, but it does not need the entire book, but only the chapter that is relevant to it".

Cedar uses eye color as an example for illustrating the discovery.  "The information about eye color is embedded in every cell of the body, but it is only the cells of the optical iris that read the information and create the eye color.  How does each cell know which chapter of the book it should read and which it should ignore?  We discovered that there is a cellular mechanism that controls gene reading.  The mechanism is called methylation.  It is comprised of additional information that tells the cell what and what not to read.  It explains how the human organism developed".

What medical applications are there for the discovery?

"The discovery is useful, for example, in cancer research.  A cancerous cell develops in an extreme manner and becomes violent.  It develops different forms and colors.  How does this happen?  One of the main factors that change is this marker, the methylation.  Information that was previously exposed to the cell, is concealed.  There are currently drugs that decelerate this exceptional methylation process and, consequently, they slow down the development of tumors.  We began our research in the late 1970's, and the significant breakthrough occurred in the early 1990's.  It is a slow path.  Many researchers are continuing our study today and it is implemented in several directions".

How did you manage to persist with your research for so long?

"The infrastructures – labs and students, are provided by the University.  Research funding is derived of grants.  Support is granted by families, foundations, society and the University.  You wouldn't continue doing research for 35 years, if you thought that you wouldn’t be appreciated".

Do you have any tips for the beginning researcher?

Yes, two tips.  The first one is openness.  Often, many people are fixated on ideas and directions, and that is anti-research.  Researchers must be open to different people and opinions, open to new ideas and being exposed to new areas of research.  The second is education.  You cannot be a good biologist if you do not study mathematics, chemistry, physics and economy.  To be a good researcher, you must have a broad background.  I would like to see the educational system in Israel encouraging this kind of learning".

"Support from Israeli Society"

What more can Israel do in order to encourage research?

"More governmental funds must be allocated.  It is difficult to explain it, but research is actually the least expensive method for curing people.  We must also improve the educational system, not just give money to individuals, but upgrade the entire method.  But in all, the system here works wonderfully.  The research community in Israel is big compared to its size.  Israel has the best medical students in the world, and that is an important element of research.  The foundations for qualitative research lie in the culture and infrastructures.  Israel, even before it was established, placed an emphasis on research and higher education, and part of the credit for the success of the Israeli researchers is due to those visionaries.  In all, I felt great support from the Israeli society during my 35 years of research".

As part of the award, financed by the Canadian government and private donors, Cedar won 100K CAD (~350K NIS) that, according to him, "already went to the kids".  Cedar greatly appreciates the program.  "People often think of diseases in terms of treatment, and they do not invest thought on how to solve the medical problem", he says.  "But as you think more of the problem, understand it, research it and look into it, you will reach a more efficient, less expensive and better solution.  Investing in basic research is worthwhile, as it will pan out in useful medicine in the future".

Prof. Haim Cedar

Position:    Researcher and lecturer at the Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada at the Hebrew University Medical School.

Prior positions:    Professor at the Hebrew University Medical School.

What more:    Father of film director Yossef Cedar.  Winner of the 2008 Wolf Award.

Foundation Chairman and President: "We have an excellent selection method"


The Foundation for the Early Detection of Nobel Prize Winners

Cedar and Razin are not the first Israelis to win the Gairdner Award.  Before them, there was Prof. Michael Sela in 1980 for his share in discovering Copaxone for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, and Avraham Hershko in 1999, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for his share in discovering and describing the system responsible for breaking down intercellular proteins, a discovery that led to a breakthrough in the study of cancer, degenerative diseases of the brain and more.

The four Israelis join about 300 researchers who received the prestigious award over the past 52 years.  The status of the award appreciated greatly after it was found to be an early detector of Nobel Prize winners – about 25% of the winners (76) went on to win a Nobel Prize.  "We have an excellent selection method", says Dr. John Dirks, President of the Gairdner Foundation, who arrived in Israel to announce Prof. Cedar's winning.  Apparently, on average, they discover the researchers seven years prior to their winning the Nobel Prize.

Foundation Chairman, Dr. Lorne Tyrrell, who came on a special visit to Israel, says that "Often, 2-3 researchers open up an entirely new field of research for everyone.  We identify them and recognize their contribution.  The government must understand that change comes from basic research.  Most of the award winners conducted research that changed the field that they studied".

Do you think that more Israelis will win the award in the future?

"We were here for a week and we met with many Israeli researchers.  It seems that Israelis simply have the right 'methylation' in their DNA".

Dr. John Dirks

Position:    Gairdner Foundation President 

Prior positions:    Dean of the University of Toronto Medical School

What more:    Received the National Legion of Honor Award in Canada for his contribution to scientific education.

Dr. Lorne Tyrrell

Position:    Gairdner Foundation Chairman

Prior positions:    Head of the Department of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at the University of Alberta

What more:    Won the Canadian Medical Association star.

Research Topic

Cancer (Epigenetics)

Cancer doesn’t discriminate; men, women and children are all susceptible to this horrible disease that takes thousands of lives each and every year. At IMRIC, research is being done in conjunction with McGill University in the development of personalized cancer treatment.