Nobel for Technion profs bring boost to Israeli biotech

new york | As Israel captured its first Nobel Prize in science, Jews worldwide kvelled over the recognition of excellence in a discipline that has long been a hallmark of the Jewish state.

The Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded Wednesday, Oct. 6, to two Israelis, Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion in Haifa, and an American, Irwin Rose of the University of California at Irvine, for a discovery that advances the fight against cancer.

The three will share the $1.3 million prize along with its international acclaim.

At a news conference in Israel, Ciechanover, 57, accepted the prize in a uniquely Israeli tone: “The human brain is the only natural resource that Israel possesses.

“This is proof of the kinds of things Israeli scientists can achieve,” he said.

His mentor, Hungarian-born Hershko, 67, also framed the win as a national triumph: “We’re very excited, and very happy to bring good news to the people of Israel.”

Asked if the attention on Israel overshadowed his honor, Rose — who said that the Israelis worked in his lab at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia at different times between 1977 to 1996 — said, “absolutely not.”

“They deserve this prize for the important observation” they made, he said, stressing the “important contribution from the Technion.”

In fact, Rose said, he never thought he would win the Nobel, but “was confident” that Hershko would.

“There’s no question about it that he did the major work in this field. I was a contributor and I never felt that I was really the key person.”

In an impromptu news conference at Hershko’s house, the two Technion professors cautioned against the state of Israel’s education system according to Ha’aretz.

“Israel will always have limited resources so we have to focus on the important, innovative and ground-breaking things,” said Hershko. “We couldn’t do such things while the education system is collapsing.”

Ciechanover was sterner in his criticism. “Israel’s academia is in a bad state. The Technion suffers badly from financial difficulties.” He said he envied the American universities’ budgets, and noted that the winning of a Nobel Prize by Israelis was a rare event. “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.

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

Ciechanover emphasized that the Nobel Prize-winning research work had started 35 years ago, and that its development took 10 years. “It takes years to train scientists to reach achievements. Scientists’ timetable is different from that of politicians. Hurting scientists will cost us a lot in the future.”

Several Jews were among the Nobel laureates announced last week. But the Israelis’ accomplishments was greeted with special pride. Upon hearing the news, Melvyn Bloom, executive vice president of the American Technion Society, instantly recalled the image of Gal Fridman — the windsurfer who won Israel’s first Olympic gold in Athens two months ago — “wrapping himself in the Israeli flag, and they were playing ‘Hatikvah.’

“This one I feel the same way about in a larger sense,” said Bloom, whose society raises funds for the Technion.

“After all these years and the tremendous achievement of the scientific community in the Jewish state, this is the first time that Israeli scientists have won the Nobel Prize,” he said.

Jewish institutions touched by the scientists felt a special glory.

“This is a mark of distinction for Israeli science in general and for the Technion in particular,” said Yitzhak Apeloig, president of what is known officially as the Technion Israel Institute for Technology.

The award could also be a boon to those fighting boycotts in academia against Israeli scholars — a phenomenon that has risen amid the intifada.

In 2000, Hershko and Ciechanover received the Albert and Mary Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, which is considered a precursor to the Nobel Prize. They are also past recipients of the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest civilian honor.

Ciechanover, Hershko and Rose, 78, will receive their Nobel in Stockholm in December.