As a murmur of anticipation gave way to hushed expectation – and then welcoming applause – Avram Hershko, M.D., Ph.D., a noted Israeli medical researcher and one of three collaborators to win the 2004 Nobel Prize for chemistry, stepped to the podium to begin a lecture about the team's prize-winning work in human cell research.
From the start, scientists, medical doctors and others who had gathered at Fox Chase Cancer Center's Reimann Auditorium for the noontime talk earlier this month were more than attentive; they were mesmerized by Hershko's obvious scientific brilliance, wrapped in a friendly and sincere style – genuine testimony to his very palpable sense of humility.
While he lectured, Hershko, a professor of biochemistry at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, revealed a fine sense of humor as well, stating at one point, "I used to be introduced as the person who came to lectures and showed smeary gels," referring to several photos he showed of laboratory slides that resemble bar codes and are by nature slightly fuzzy-looking.
These presented part of the story, just a piece of the meticulous research and information Hershko shared with the audience about the epoch-making biochemical studies he, fellow Technion scientist Aaron Chehanover, Ph.D., and former FCCC scientist Irwin A. "Ernie" Rose, Ph.D. (now retired and living in Irvine, Calif.) had worked on together, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Much of the work was conducted by the three men in Rose's FCCC laboratory.
Hershko and Chehanover are the only Israelis ever to win a Nobel science prize, but other Israelis have won peace and literature Nobels. Another FCCC scientist Baruch S. Blumberg, M.D., Ph.D., won the 1976 Nobel Prize for medicine. Nobel Prizes have been awarded continuously since 1901.
Hershko, Chehanover and Rose won for their research on the regulatory protein ubiquitin, so named because it's ubiquitous in the cells of animals and plants. Ubiquitin serves as each cell's internal garbage disposal, so to speak, using an enzyme system to target unwanted proteins for breakdown and recycling, once their specific task within the cell has been completed.
Along with recycling products the cell no longer needs, ubiquitin helps to regulate important proteins that control cell reproduction.
The process is called ubiquitin-mediated proteolysis. It plays a key role in DNA repair and transcription, protein quality control and immune response. Understanding the mechanisms for controlling and processing cell proteins allows researchers to identify mistakes in the process that may lead to disease, including cancer.
"From the beginning, I thought this was important work and, of course, should be considered so, because once the cell is affected there is no going back," said Hershko.
"Actually, how proteins are degraded in cells – intracellular protein degradation – has been known since the late 1930s, but, even with our latest work, a lot more remains to be done.
"We can learn from the work we've done about the continued importance of biochemistry in medical research."
'Happy About the Connection'
Hershko, who earned his M.D. in 1965 and his Ph.D. in 1969 from the Hebrew University and Hadassah Medical School, Jerusalem, is no stranger to FCCC, which he calls his "second scientific home." It is a working relationship that began 28 years ago, he said, when he spent his first sabbatical there in 1977-78, the result of meeting Rose at a conference in 1975.
Hershko will spend his latest sabbatical at the institution in autumn 2006 working with and in the lab of Timothy J. Yen, Ph.D., senior member, Basic Science Division, on cell division.
His home of homes, of course, is Israel, to which he immigrated from Hungary in 1950, and where he lives in Haifa with his wife, three grown sons and six grandchildren, whom he calls "his favorite subject."
Word of the Nobel Prize came on Sukkot, he said, while he was out with his wife and their four granddaughters: "Calls came from Sweden, first to the lab and then to our home. In the end, I learned about it from a cousin of mine who called on my cell phone to tell me he had heard it on the news.
"It was a great honor for me and for Israel, and I was very happy about the Israel-U.S. connection," Hershko remarked in a private interview later that afternoon.
In answer to a question about whether the Nobel Prize-winning work is a cure for cancer, he said emphatically, "No, it isn't!"
It is proven research, which has led to the cancer drug Velcade (approved for use in the U.S. in 2003), to which other discoveries can be added, he explained. Often, there is a degree of luck involved in research, he confided, noting that the good researcher knows to be very appreciative of good fortune in the lab.
When at FCCC, he stays with friends in Cherry Hill, N.J., and enjoys what Philadelphia offers socially and culturally.
Among his leisure-time interests are reading and classical music, especially compositions by the great romantics, such as Chopin, Brahms and Mozart. But his main hobby, he noted, with a wide grin, is "my grandchildren."