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A drug based on research into protein degradation in cells conducted in the past by Profs. Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion was approved recently by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in the treatment of bone marrow cancer.

The drug, Velcade, which was developed by Millennium Pharmaceuticals of Cambridge, Mass., is based on Hershko and Ciechanover's discovery 25 years ago of the system in the body that degrades proteins - the ubiquitin system. The system, which uses a small protein (ubiquitin) to mark the proteins that have to be degraded at the right time and the right place in the cell, allows the body to get rid of superfluous proteins and leave unharmed those proteins slated to continue to function.

Prof. Hershko said Millennium is using the system he and Ciechanover discovered to identify proteins that do not degrade, thus causing the cell to continue 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," Hershko said. "You try to land a plane without turning off its engine; it's impossible. The only way is to turn off the engine."

The FDA approval, Hershko said, was a fine example of the way in which basic research could in the end lead to the development of a drug.

"This is the first drug to be developed based on this basic research done in my lab," he said. "That is very gratifying. I'm sure that many other new drugs will be discovered."