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(photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
Czech-born cancer researcher Prof. Jiri Bartek was honored to be awarded the prestigious 2009 Shai Shacknai Memorial Prize in Immunology and Cancer Research - even though several Jerusalem recipients went on to win a Nobel Prize. The word "even" may raise eyebrows, but the scientist and physician from the Danish Cancer Society in Copenhagen says he wouldn't want a Nobel, and calls such an eventuality "a catastrophe."
In a recent interview at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School's Institute of Medical Research, the 56-year-old researcher suggested that getting the coveted Nobel would mean "you couldn't get into the lab any more, because it commits you to participating in charitable events or joining commissions. Only a handful of laureates have been able to remain in research. Most couldn't carry on with their work. Maybe those whose research careers have survived the Nobel were able to put up a wall around themselves. I know some laureates personally, and for them it was the end of their scientific careers. They became prominent in the media and were never left alone. If you really have a passion for science, a Nobel usually means you don't have time for research any more."
THE EPONYMOUS Shai Shacknai Prize was established by long-time New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg in memory of his Wayne, New Jersey synagogue rabbi who died of cancer at the age of 38. After the data-processing entrepreneur went into American Jewish life (he was general chairman of the United Jewish Appeal), Lautenberg was so shaken by the passing of his Jerusalem-born rabbi that he set up the prize, which is administered by his 41-year-old Hebrew University-Hadassah Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology. The prize is awarded to a foreign leading light in these fields, who comes to Jerusalem to deliver a series of lectures.
Bartek's discoveries relating to cancer cell division have not cured cancer, but have significantly added to man's understanding of cells that go haywire and multiply uncontrollably. They are yet another step in the complex process of building the wall of cancer treatments and cures brick by brick.
HE WAS BORN in the town of Sumperk in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, where Russian was the first language taught in school. Bartek himself speaks Czech, Danish, English, German and Russian. His father designed new optics instruments, while his mother ran a nursery school. In 1979, Jiri graduated from the Palack University Medical School in Olomouc, earning an MD degree, but Bartek was never really interested in being a working physician.
"I began my scientific research already in medical school and published six papers before I earned my MD degree," he recalled. "The exams I took were more of a secondary occupation. I was given the keys to several institutes and even slept many nights in the labs."
He then moved to London for an internship at the biology institute of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, one of the leading institutions in Europe. "I spent four years in England and liked it very much, as the level of science was very high. I was offered a place at Cambridge, but decided to go home to Prague to direct the oncological biology department at the city's Institute of Hematology and Blood Transfusion."
But in 1992, he moved to the Danish Cancer Society Research Institute in Copenhagen, where he continues to work, even though he returns to the Czech Republic every three months for business.
His Czech-born wife, a pathologist and clinical oncology researcher he met at medical school and married in 1981, works with him in his Copenhagen lab. When her children were smaller (the son is now in his last year of medical school and is a would-be neurosurgeon) and the daughter a biology student on fellowship in the US playing basketball), the Barteks bought a very sophisticated microscope that she could use to work at home.
None of the family - except their daughter who had to for joining the Danish national basketball team - took on Danish citizenship. "We don't rule out going back to the Czech Republic after Soviet rule collapsed. The atmosphere is improving all the time. But many talented people left, and some came to Denmark to work at my lab. Suddenly education is very good in the Czech republic, the research level is good and grants are reasonable."
Denmark, he continued, feels the economic pinch, even though it is self sufficient in oil from the North Sea. It has been found in surveys to be "the happiest country in the world. People feel safe and enjoy life, change jobs frequently and don't mind learning something else." Residents pay 50 percent of their incomes or more in taxes but get many free government services and subsidies. But there are not enough doctors and nurses, thus the queues in clinics and hospitals are long.
Bartek doesn't own a car; he usually goes to work via light-rail trains. "It would take twice as long to get to my lab by car, and I rarely take a taxi. I don't want to hurt the environment." His workplace encourages good health by offering staffers several gyms and clubs and long tables laden with fruits and vegetables. "It has been shown that you need six servings a day to reduce the risk of colon cancer," he declared. Bartek, who played on the Czech junior team as a youth even though he is not unusually tall, plays ball with his students every week.
He worries that the most talented young Danes prefer going into business rather than science. If they do go into science, it is more likely to be biotech companies, most of which don't last longer than a decade. They are offered good salaries, but many companies disappear, he said.
Bartek notes that he has no family medical history that piqued his interest in cancer, but later his best friend died of glioblastoma (a type of brain cancer) at 48. He also has a student whose father died of the same disease, and has other students who have personal experience with cancer.
"Cancer research has always progressed very lowly and unevenly," he said, "but now things are becoming parallel on many fronts. Although it is not one but many diseases, depending on the part of the body affected, they have common proteins, modifications and sequencing genes. The main scenarios are available now. We can judge which will be the best targets and are looking for new biomarkers and therapies. The basic research is now translated into treatment at the bedside much faster than it used to be."
HIS LAB'S MAJOR contribution to the understanding of cancer is based on previous evidence that some system protects cells against tumors. Many researchers sought to understand how a cell "learns that it is about to degenerate into a tumor and how it copes with it. Our project resolved these two questions, and because they are the key to improved cancer diagnosis and treatment, it attracted much attention among scientists and the media around the world," Bartek explained.
When cells divide, genetic information must double for the genes to remain the same, he said. A cell that is about to become cancerous can't duplicate itself without making errors. "We discovered that while in normal tissue you don't see any activation, in the immediately adjacent tissue - where there is an early pre-tumorous change - the entire network that supervises the quality of genes is activated. The system puts an end to such cells and delays the cell's division until the genes are corrected. But if it's in long-term inactivity, other changes can occur, and there will almost certainly be a change in the system that supervises the cell as well. Then the cell can escape; despite its damaged DNA, it multiplies, creating a tumor."
Some principles regarding cancer - including genetic ones - are common to all types. But there are specific variations, even within one type of cancer or cancer subgroup," continued the cell biologist. "For decades, treatment was the same for everybody; it either fit the patient or not. But increasingly today, and certainly in the future, customized cancer care is a major goal. We have to learn how to classify patients according to subgroups and even individualize them, so each patient will get medications and treatments suited specifically to him or her. This has already begun, but it will become the rule. Decisions will be made separately regarding each patient. There are also totally new directions in DNA repair and work on non-invasive biomarkers from blood."
SOME OF HIS work has led to drugs that can sensitize cancers to chemotherapy and radiation. "Drugs can influence DNA repair pathways to help cells survive. If they work powerfully against cancer cells, they can eliminate this danger. Normal cells have all their protective mechanisms intact, but when they are cancerous, the spectrum is narrow so we can try to block them."
Bartek, who has visited Israel three times since 2005 for professional conferences and now the Shacknai Prize, ranks Israeli cancer research as "outstanding. There are excellent researchers in the field, and we collaborate with some of them and issue joint publications." He condemns academic boycott efforts against Israel in Britain and other places - but not Denmark, as it is "extremely open and against such activities." He has had a few Israeli post-graduate students working in Copenhagen, but none today. "They prefer to go mostly to the US and the UK because of the language barrier."
Asked about the possibility of defeating cancer completely, Bartek doesn't think there will be a blood test for all cancers in the foreseeable future.
"Maybe it will happen far ahead," he said. "Mankind have never been in a situation in which so many people live long lives. A century ago, celebrating one's 50th birthday was considered unusual. Nature works to protect most people of reproductive age so they have offspring and thereby transfer their genes to the next generation." But life beyond that age, added Bartek, is accompanied in many people with diseases and death - unless science can find successful treatment or even cures to thwart this.