Israeli Researchers Win Canadian Medical Science Award

By JENNY HAZAN, CJN Israel Bureau   

Thursday, 28 April 2011

TEL AVIV — Five representatives from the Gairdner Foundation of Canada toured Israel earlier this month and met with the Israeli recipients of this year’s prestigious Canada Gairdner International Awards.

Chaim Cedar and Aharon RazinThe prizes, given to professors Chaim Cedar and Aharon Razin – researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – are worth $100,000 and are awarded to seven scientists annually in recognition of achievements that “contribute significantly to improving the quality of human life.”

The other recipients this year were Adrian Peter Bird of the University of Edinburgh; Shizuo Akira of the WPI Immunology Frontier Research Center in Osaka, Japan; Jules Hoffman of the University of Strasbourg in France; Robert Black of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and Michael Hayden from the University of British Columbia.

The Israeli winners, who will officially receive their awards at a ceremony in Toronto in October, were honoured for their work on DNA methylation, a basic chemical process that turns parts of each cell’s genetic code on and off.

Depending on what parts of the cell’s genes are expressed (switched on) or subdued (switched off), it will assume a specific function, such as producing liver, brain or skin cells.

“DNA methylation is like the annotation on the instruction booklet that is our chromosomes. Each cell contains the same ‘complete booklet’ of genetic code, but through the release of chemicals, methylation tells each cell how to ‘read’ its own specific instructions,” said Cedar, who has been a professor on Hebrew U’s medical faculty since 1981.

“For example, some things should be read with emphasis, some not. Some things should only be read at one time or another. The human genome is chemically annotated, and we discovered this annotation and figured out what it is and does.”

This theory has resulted in new approaches to cancer treatment, since they discovered that healthy cells can “switch” into cancerous ones.

The idea is that if the methylation that causes cancer can be stopped, or prevented, so, too, can cancer.

“Cancer cells, like all cells, have the exact same instruction booklet as normal cells, but they have adopted different properties than normal cells because the annotation, or methylation, has changed,” Cedar said.

Currently, there are drugs that can inhibit or slow down the methylation of cancer cells with some success, but more research is needed to develop drugs that will target cancer cells more effectively, he added.

Cedar and Razin’s research may be instrumental in that process.

“If we really understand how methylation works, we can develop methods for modulating or altering it. This can be an unbelievable tool for the development of medicine,” Cedar said.

John Dirks, the Gairdner Foundation’s president and scientific director, said the pair’s work is groundbreaking.

“The award is directed at scientists who have made a seminal discovery in medical science,” Dirks said after visiting with Cedar and Razin at Hebrew U.

“[Cedar and Razin] started 30 years ago, and it has taken a long time for the medical community to understand the significance of their research, but science often takes awhile to mature, like good wine… I would say this is a very important step forward and we’re going to hear a lot more about it.”

The chair of the foundation’s board, Lorne Tyrrell, who joined Dirks in Israel for the tour, said he was impressed with Cedar and Razin’s “amazing” research.

“They have discovered a simple answer for how some genes are expressed in some tissues and not in others, and have provided insight into our basic understanding of how cells grow and develop and become cancerous,” Tyrrell said.  

“They have given us a new approach for dealing with [cancer]. This will have a long-term impact on disease and health and a transforming effect on medicine.”

Relative to the importance of the research, Tyrrell said their labs and offices “are quite modest… but the people are special.

“I enjoyed it so much sitting with them in their lab while they discussed with such passion their science and the history of their work,” Tyrrell said.

He also appreciated the fact that graduate students can receive academic credits by working with the scientists on their research, and he admired “Israel’s culture of… science.”

“Science has a big influence on [Israel’s] culture. People appreciate science. I think that’s very enlightened,” Tyrrell said.

Cedar said that this culture of science is one of the top reasons he immigrated to Israel from New York in 1973.

“There is an advantage to doing science in Israel. Science and research is a culture, an infrastructure. Society has to want to support it.

“It has to be ingrained in the culture of the people, and in Israel, it’s the culture of the Jewish people that prizes academic challenge, studying, learning, the desire to find out about things and do something to help mankind, and there is a willingness on the part of society to invest in this.”

Cedar and Razin are not the first Israeli recipients of Gairdner awards. Michael Sela, former president of the Weizmann Institute of Science, received an award in 1980, and 2004 Nobel Prize winner Avraham Hershko, of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, won a Gairdner Award in 1999.

Cedar said he was thrilled to be counted among the recipients.

“It feels great to receive this award,” he said. “You don’t do the work to get a reward, but it’s encouraging. It’s nice to know that other people recognize that what you’ve done is important and worthwhile. Having these awards stimulates science, brings about a general interest in science, helps educate the public, and encourages scientists.”

Dirks said some of the highlights of his trip to Israel included meeting with Hebrew U president Menachem Ben-Sasson and Israel Academy of Sciences president Ruth Arnon, as well as touring the Weizmann Institute campus, and attending an evening reception for the award-winners hosted by Canada’s ambassador to Israel, Paul Hunt, at his official residence.

“It has been really special,” Dirks said. “Everything has been great – the hospitality, the meetings, the beauty of the country, the weather.”

Tyrrell said the meeting between Canadians and Israelis was particularly special.

“The atmosphere was very nice,” he said. “To see the Canadian and Israeli cultures come together was just amazing. Israel is really a very special place.”

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.