Winners of this year’s Wolf Prizes for the Sciences and the Arts – considered Israel’s “Nobel Prizes” – were announced by Wolf Foundation council chairman and Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar on Wednesday.

Ten scientists and one artist from around the world will receive the prizes, with $100,000 to be awarded in each category (medicine, chemistry, physics, agriculture and the arts) by President Shimon Peres at a state ceremony on May 29.

Prof. Rudolf Jaenisch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Whitehead Institute Institute for Biomedical Research in the US and Prof. Shinya Yamanaka of the University of Kyoto in Japan will share the Wolf Prize for Medicine for their great contributions to knowledge about stem cells, which have the potential to repair damaged organs and tissues.

The foundation noted that in the last two years, there has been a significant breakthrough in the field with the ability to “reprogram” adult human stem cells so that they take on the properties of embryonic stem cells and are thus not rejected immunologically by the recipient. The two laureates are largely responsible for this advancement, which is now being used in hundreds of regenerative medicine labs around the world.

In a Jerusalem Post interview three-and-a-half years ago with Jaenisch when he received the Hebrew University’s Lautenberg Center-Rabbi Shai Shacknai Award, the German- born cancer researcher and transgenic scientist said he got to the last year of medical school but decided belatedly that it was not for him. Fortunately, he switched to Germany’s famed Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry to conduct research and do his thesis on bacteriophages – viruses discovered almost a century ago that infect bacteria and became major experimental tools for molecular biology. Then he proceeded to Princeton University to study bacteriorphage genetics to study the effects of viruses on mice.

There he developed the field of epigenetic inheritance – a set of reversible heritable changes in gene function or other cell phenotypes that occur without a change in DNA sequence – which became an important tool for developmental biology and cancer research.

“Science is... a cooperative enterprise. You have to use other people, because you can’t do it all alone,” he said.

The Wolf Prize in Chemistry will be shared by three US researchers: Prof. Stuart Alan Rice of the University of Chicago, Prof. Ching Tang of the University of Rochester and Prof. Krzysztof Matyjaszewski of Carnegie-Mellon University, for their work on synthesis of organic materials.

Prof. Harris Lewin of the University of Illinois will share the Agriculture Prize for 2011 – for his significant discoveries in the field of immunogenetics and protection of animals from diseases – with Prof. James Cook of Washington State University, for his work on plant diseases and their effect on crop yields.

The Wolf Prize in Physics will be granted to three German scientists: Profs. Maximilan Haider, Harald Rose and Knut Urban, who developed a new type of electron microscope that makes it possible to examine individual atoms and promote materials science.

The winner of the Wolf Prize in the Arts will be given to Rosemarie Trockel of Germany, who was cited for her works of contemporary art, which have received many prominent awards and have been exhibited around the world including in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Sa’ar congratulated the winners and said that in the 33 years of its existence, the Wolf Prizes have brought much honor to Israel. Among previous recipients are Weizmann Institute of Science Prof. Ada Yonat, who later received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. The foundation was established by Dr. Ricardo Wolf, a German-born Jew who served as Cuba’s ambassador to Israel between 1961 and 1973. Thus far, 263 scientists and artists – including 18 Israelis – have received the awards.

Sa’ar said that for the first time, the Education Ministry has transferred NIS 1.2 million to support the Wolf Foundation to help it continue its tradition of awarding prestigious prizes to outstanding scientists and artists.

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