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Prof. Yossi Shiloh, a leading researcher of a degenerative disease that affects North African, Palestinian and Bedouin communities, will be awarded the Israel Prize for life sciences this year, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced yesterday.

The prize committee, headed by Prof. Meir Wilchek wrote that Shiloh, who is a professor at Tel Aviv University’s Sakcler School of Medicine, is a “groundbreaking scientist in the field of human genetics.”

The committee wrote Shiloh had discovered a gene with a key role in protecting the hereditary material in every cell, an innovative finding in the biological understanding of cancer.

Shiloh won the prestigious Clowes Award from the American Association for Cancer Research last month.

Shiloh, 62, a genetics professor, has devoted his career to researching ataxia-telangiectasia ‏(A-T‏), a rare, neurodegenerative disease that causes severe disability.

In Israel it is manifested mostly among people of North African origin and the Palestinian and Bedouin communities.

He began researching the hereditary disease in 1977 as part of his doctorate after he met a family from the Negev whose four children suffered from it.

His work focused on the mechanisms that enable the cell to overcome DNA damage caused by various environmental factors such as radiation, chemicals in food and pollutants.

This damage is common in healthy people as well, but it is repaired by complex defense mechanisms, which are vital to preserving cell life and preventing cancer. These defense mechanisms, however, are not activated in A-T patients.