Wolf Prize 2019: Israeli Architect, Biochemist Who Linked Weight Gain to Hormone Among Winners

The laureates in the five categories include Yad Vashem architect Moshe Safdie, chemists, mathematicians and an Israeli-American economist

Moshe Safdie at the Crystal Bridges museum that he designed in Arkansas, 2011.

The winners of Israel's 2019 Wolf Prize, rewarded for their contribution to the science and arts, were announced Wednesday. The laureates in the five categories include architect Moshe Safdie and a biochemist who identified that the hormone leptin is involved in regulating body weight.

The prize, awarded this year for the 41st time, was founded by Ricardo Wolf, a German-born inventor, philanthropist and former Cuban ambassador to Israel, together with his wife, tennis player Francisca Subirana Wolf. 

Laureates receive a diploma and a check for $100,000.

The Wolf Prize for Architecture was awarded to Moshe Safdie, 80, for the significant mark he's left on the industry. Safdie made his international name in his younger years with his breakthrough project "Habitat 67," built in Montreal. Closer to home, in Israel he was responsible for planning Yad Vashem, Ben-Gurion International Airport's gigantic Terminal 3, the city of Modi'in, the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, the Mamila complex by the Old City of Jerusalem and the Israel Antiquities Authority building (under construction).

His projects overseas include the Vancouver municipal library, and a Singaporean marina including three iconic towers and museum. In 2016 he told Haaretz that he was doing less work in Israel because he had so much to do abroad.

The Wolf Prize for Medicine went to Jeffrey Friedman, 64, of the Rockefeller University, who researches the molecular mechanisms in food intake and weight. In 1994 he and colleagues realized that a peptide chain called leptin plays a role in weight regulation and gain, and he has won dozens of awards for his work. Leptin is released by fat cells and among other things is identified by receptors in the brain that control the body's energy balance.

It bears saying that leptin's role is still being elucidated. It turns out that among obese people, leptin levels are usually normal. But Friedman's research shored up the argument that weight gain involves vast biological networks involving hundreds of genes, if not more.  His discovery led hundreds of teams around the world to seek and find mechanisms involved in obesity, a problem for around 300 million people around the world.

The Wolf Prize for Chemistry went to Prof. Stephen Buchwald of MIT and Prof. John Hartwig of Berkeley for developing a process, since called Buchwald-Hartwig amination, to improve the synthesis of large organic molecules, including ones used in the pharmaceutical industry. 

The Wolf Prize for Math went to Prof. Gregory Lawler of the University of Chicago and Prof. Jean Francois Le Gall of the University Paris-Sud Orsay for their contribution to research on stochastic (random) processes. The simplest example of a stochastic process is a person strolling along who can decide, with every step, in which direction to go. Some physical systems behave like this. Research on stochastic processes lies within the seam between pure mathematics and physics – it begins with using mathematical tools to describe physical phenomena.

The Wolf Prize for Agriculture went to David Zilberman of the University of California, who was born in Jerusalem, for developing economic models for fundamental problems in agriculture, economics and policy.

The Wolf Prize is given by the president of Israel on behalf of the Wolf Foundation. Since its establishment, the foundation has awarded 336 prizes to scientists and artists; about a third went on to win Nobel prizes.

Among its recipients in the past are Stephen Hawking, Ada Yonath, Marc Chagall, Paul McCartney, Zubin Mehta and Ruth Arnon.