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STOCKHOLM - Two Israelis and an American won the 2004 Nobel Prize for Chemistry on Wednesday for helping to understand how the human body gives the "kiss of death" to faulty proteins to defend itself from diseases like cancer.

Aaron Ciechanover, 57, Avram Hershko, 67 - the first Israelis to win a chemistry prize - and Irwin Rose, 78, were honored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for their work in the 1980s that discovered one of the cell's most important cyclical processes, regulated protein degradation.

Ciechanover is director of the Rappaport Family Institute for Research in Medical Sciences at the Technion in Haifa, while Hershko, originally from Hungary, is a professor at the institute.

Rose is a specialist at the department of physiology and biophysics at the college of medicine at the University of California-Irvine.

Laureates warn on state of Israel's education systemIn an impromptu news conference at Hershko's house, the two scientists cautioned against the state of Israel's education system.

"Israel will always have limited resources so we have to focus on the important, innovative and ground breaking things," said Hershko, adding that "we couldn't do such things while the education system is collapsing."

Professor Ciechanover was sterner in his criticism.

"Israel's academia is in a bad state. The Technion suffers badly from financial difficulties," Ciechanover said of his home institution, adding that he envied the American universities' budgets.

The winning of a Noble prize by Israelis was a rare event he said.

'We don't have oil, uranium or diamonds. Israel depends on its academia. All we have - the Israel Defense Forces, Rafael [the Armament Development Authority] and the high-tech industry - depends on what we have in our heads," Ciechanover said.

"Cutting off this head is an act of suicide," he said.

Ciechanover emphasized that the Noble prize winning research work had started 35 years ago, and that its development took ten years.

"It takes years to train scientists to reach achievments. Scientists' time table is different from that of politicians. Hurting scientists will cost us a lot in the future," he warned.

Trio's work highly relevant for cancer researchCiechanover and Hershko found that proteins that could cause disease are "labeled" for destruction with a molecule called ubiquitin which dispatches them to the body's "waste disposal" units, called proteasomes.

The marked proteins are then chopped to pieces. When such degradation fails to work correctly, the result can be diseases like cervical cancer and cystic fibrosis. So research in this area may lead to new drugs for those diseases and others, the academy said.

"We are not a building that stays still, we are all the time exchanging our proteins, synthesising and destroying them," said an elated Ciechanover. "Some proteins get spoilt. We discovered the process by which the body exercises quality control."

Lars Thelander of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry said the trio's work was highly relevant for cancer research. Ciechanover said it had already "led to development of numerous drugs for degenerative diseases and malignancies that big pharmaceutical companies are busy working on."

In a conference call with the academy after the prize was announced, Ciechanover said the process will help introduce new medicines that can fight cancer and other diseases.

Hershko warned, however, that although the team's research has resulted in the approval of one drug, it does not mean that the professors have discovered a wonder drug for cancer.

The three scientists will share the 10 million kronor ($1.3 million) cash prize.

Ciechanover said he was overwhelmed at winning the prize.

"I have never thought of money, we earn very small salaries in Israel," he said. "It is more the honor for Israel, for myself, that a small country can make it... I am as proud for myself as I am for my country."

The chemistry prize is the first Nobel chemistry prize to be awarded to somebody from Israel - but not the first Nobel Prize.

In 1978, then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. In 1994, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shared the peace prize with Yasser Arafat.

In 1966, Shmuel Yosef Agnon shared the literature prize with Swedish writer Nelly Sachs.

This year's award announcements began Monday with the Nobel Prize in medicine going to Americans Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck.

Axel and Buck were selected by a committee at Stockholm's Karolinska Institutet for their work on the sense of smell. They clarified the intricate biological pathway from the nose to the brain that lets people sense smells.

On Tuesday, Americans David J. Gross, H. David Politzer and Frank Wilczek won the physics prize for their explanation of the force that binds particles inside the atomic nucleus.

Their work has helped science get closer to "a theory for everything," the academy said in awarding the prize.

The winner of the literature prize will be announced Thursday. The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel will be announced Oct. 11.

The winner of the coveted peace prize - the only one not awarded in Sweden - will be announced Friday in Oslo, Norway.

The prizes, which include the 10 million kronor check, a gold medal and a diploma, are presented on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896.