When Israeli scientists Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko won the Nobel Prize in chemistry last month, plenty of people had reason to celebrate.
Beyond the two researchers, all Israelis can take pride in the country’s first Nobel science prize. Cancer patients everywhere can be heartened by the breakthrough research that earned the pair such an honor; Ciechanover and Hershko discovered a process that lets cells destroy unwanted proteins, and their work has led to a new type of cancer treatment.
And in Brooklyn, N.Y., businessman Harvey Kaylie can beam, knowing that he played a key role behind the scenes. Kaylie and his wife, Gloria, have been funding Ciechanover’s professorship at the Israel Cancer Research Fund, the largest single source of private funding for cancer research in Israel.
About three years ago, Kaylie learned that Ciechanover — a recipient of the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest civilian honor, for his groundbreaking cancer research — had been barred from a European medical conference because of his nationality. “I got really upset,” Kaylie recalled recently. “You are talking about doctors, where politics and stupidity are blinding them. I said I had to do something about it.”
The Kaylies decided to sponsor Ciechanover’s professorship at the ICRF.
Last month, Kaylie was on business in Taiwan when he heard about the Nobel Prize. “It was a great feeling to be in Taiwan and seeing this on the front page written in Chinese,” he said.
Back home, Gloria Kaylie was also thrilled that “her professor” had won the highest medical honor in the world. But, she added, “I was more excited that Israel won.”
The news capped a momentous year for the ICRF, which was founded in 1975 by a group of American and Canadian oncologists, cancer researchers and businesspeople seeking to harness Israel’s educational and scientific resources in the fight against cancer.
ICRF president Dr. Yashar Hirshaut — an oncologist specializing in breast cancer and an associate professor at New York Presbyterian Hospital — said he was so excited when he heard the Nobel news, he couldn’t wait to call the organization’s president in Los Angeles — even if it was 5 in the morning.
“I felt the entire concept of the ICRF had been proven,” Hirshaut explained. “We wanted to show the world that science in Israel can reach the highest standards, to see Israel as a center of expertise. What better proof of that principle than Israeli scientists winning prizes for outstanding work done in Israel?”
The ICRF was founded at a time when federal cancer research funds that had been flowing into Israel were drying up for political and economic reasons. The founder of the group was the late Dr. Daniel Miller, chief of the lymphatic clinic at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who saw Israeli physicians being shortchanged on research funds. Hirshaut joined the group the next year.
In 1976, the first year of operation, ICRF raised $25,000 and handed out five grants of $5,000 each.
The group’s purpose, Hirshaut explained, was to create a marketplace for ideas where scientists in Israel could compete for grants, with their applications reviewed by outstanding North American scientists. It is the only North American foundation devoted solely to supporting cancer studies by Israeli researchers.
This process would aid junior researchers, as they were unable to compete against the senior scientists who traditionally received the lion’s share of funding. “We created a model in which young and middle-level people can compete on a level playing field,” Hirshaut said.
The concept clicked. In 27 years, the ICRF has awarded about $30 million to nearly 1,500 Israeli scientists.
The ICRF slowly expanded its grants, first with small fellowships, then adding career development awards, project grants, clinical career developments awards and ultimately ICRF professorships, awards sought after by the highest echelons of Israeli academia.
Ciechanover’s research caught the attention of the ICRF 22 years ago, when he was granted a fellowship. Since then, Ciechanover and Hershko, his mentor, have been awarded ICRF professorships, and each is receiving a grant of $50,000 a year for seven years.
Hershko explained the nature of their research, studying proteins and their role in causing cancer.
Proteins are the “machines that carry out and regulate all the processes in the cells,” Hershko said. “But once a protein had done its job, it has to be disposed of. This is the process of protein degradation that we needed to understand.”
“We 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,” he continued. “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.”
In 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Velcade injections, a new treatment for multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow, declaring it “the first in a new class of anti-cancer agents known as proteasome inhibitors.”
Hershko noted that Velcade is “the first drug specifically targeted against the ubiquitin system. It is based on our research. I am sure that many other new drugs will be discovered which are targeted against specific processes that go wrong in the ubiquitin system in different types of cancer,” including colon, breast, prostate and melanomas.
The ICRF is proudly capitalizing on its Nobel winners by creating a new fund-raising mechanism called the Nobel Laureate Circle for major givers to recognize their achievements with a $25,000 donation to help fund future scientists.
“We’ve begun to build a major gifts level, and what’s exciting is initiating and sitting in on solicitations where an individual makes a major gift which is changing the face of the organization,” said Simon Kaminetsky, the ICRF’s new international executive director. “There’s also a personal mission. Everyone has a relative, a best friend, a favorite teacher, people of all ages, who has been stricken with cancer.”
Susan Canter, an attorney in her 30s, joined the group in 1999 because of her support for Israel and because her brother died of cancer. She has created the successful “Next Generation” division, seeking donors in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
“This organization encapsulates two things close to my heart,” she said. “It’s a noncontroversial way of supporting Israel. It’s not about Labor or Likud, it’s about promoting science.”
For Hirshaut, the Nobel Prize is the first plateau in a long journey. “Over this period of time we have nurtured excellent scientists,” he said, “people who are now reaching the peak of their careers.”
In 1999 the Israel Prize in Biology was awarded to Dr. Howard Cedar from Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, a 12-year recipient of the Samuel Ungerleider Research Professorship from the ICRF. The ICRF also has long supported the work of Dr. Eli Canaani of The Weizmann Institute of Science, one of the scientists who played a key role in the complex research that led to Gleevec, the revolutionary new anti-cancer drug for the treatment of chronic myelogenous leukemia.
The ICRF’s grants continue to grow. In September, the organization gave out more than $1.6 million to 53 researchers working at major medical and scientific institutions across Israel.
“Supporting more than 50 research laboratories in Israel is very significant in our small country, where funding available for medical research is very limited,” said Dr. Alberto Gabizon, professor of oncology at the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Medicine and chairman of the Institute of Oncology at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center.
Kaylie will continue to sponsor Ciechanover’s research at the ICRF for the next 21 years, but he already has seen what a difference his contributions have made.
“It’s a very noble cause, because what you’re doing is helping all mankind, Jews, Arabs — everybody benefits by the results,” Kaylie said. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if an Israeli were the one to come through with a breakthrough?”