Israeli Pair Become First to Win Nobel for Science

Israeli scientists for the first time were awarded a Nobel Prize at Friday's ceremony in Stockholm.

Tamara Traubman
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Tamara Traubman

Israeli scientists for the first time were awarded a Nobel Prize at Friday's ceremony in Stockholm. Professors Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry along with $1.25 million, to be shared with co-recipient Prof. Irwin Rose of the University of California at Irvine.

Hershko and Ciechanover spent last week in Stockholm, delivering lectures to fellow scientists, attending official receptions, meeting Jewish community leaders and granting numerous press interviews. They spent Thursday morning rehearsing their moves for the main event: At the ceremony, each recipient gets up and walks, at a measured pace, toward the large letter N at center-stage. He then sticks out his left hand to receive the medal and prize scroll from the king of Sweden while shaking hands with the right. He then bows to the king, the members of the Royal Swedish Academy and finally, the audience.

After Ciechanover and Hershko completed their mission successfully at the ceremony, Hershko helped Rose walk up to the king. Rose adamantly refused the help of a young Swede assigned to accompany him. "Only Avram will help me at the ceremony," he said, prompting cheers from the crowd.

The trio won the Nobel for their discovery of a molecule called ubiquitin, which is central to the process of protein degradation in the body.

After the ceremony, the laureates and their guests had dinner in Stockholm's city hall building, where Hershko gave the banquet speech: "At times, a Nobel Prize is awarded to several people who did not work together, but contributed separately to a common discovery. At other times, the prize is given to a team of scientists whose collaborative research resulted in a discovery. However, it is rare that a Nobel Prize is bestowed upon a team of three, each of whom represents a different generation in science: a biochemist from Israel (myself), his graduate student at the time of the discovery (Ciechanover) and their host and collaborator in the United States (Rose). We each have a very different background, as well as very different personalities and talents. Perhaps, I may best describe myself as being intuitive and persistent, Ernie Rose as analytical and sharply critical and Aaron Ciechanover as a person of immense energies. It took the complementing talents and cumulative efforts of the three of us, together with huge efforts by dedicated research groups in Haifa and Philadelphia, building upon an important background of prior research, to reach the critical mass that resulted in the breakthrough in the research and the discovery of the ubiquitin system 25 years ago.

"The discovery of this biochemical pathway has been recognized by awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, even though its implications are primarily in the biomedical sciences and hopefully, in the treatment or prevention of human diseases in the future ....

"At such an auspicious event, which recognizes the work of many years, one naturally feels the great debt owed for the support of the family and loved ones, without whom the achievement would not have been possible. Usually I thank only my wife and my own family, but now I am speaking for all three of us, and therefore I would like to thank all three spouses: Zelda Rose, Judy Hershko and Menuha Ciechanover. Thank you for many years of help and support and for bearing with many times of absent mindedness, blank stares and strange moods when experiments didn't go quite as expected. Thank you all."

Hershko was born in Hungary in 1937 and immigrated to Israel in 1950. During the Holocaust, his father was sent to a labor camp, and his mother and brothers were moved from one ghetto to another.

For Ciechanover, who was born in Haifa in 1947, Friday's ceremony was the first time he donned a tuxedo - even after it was announced that he was a Nobel recipient, he continued to arrive at work each day in a blue shirt and jeans. Ciechanover has taken advantage of his newfound celebrity to warn about the crisis at local research universities and the country's deteriorating education system.

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