Prof. Michael Sela and Prof. Ruth Arnon – both world-renowned scientists – have worked together for six decades, she originally as his student at the Weizmann Institute of Science and then as his research partner and friend.
Today, he at 93 and she at 84 years of age, both continue to work in their Weizmann labs – and they are together members of a seven-person Award Committee appointed by the prime minister and the A.M.N. Foundation for the Advancement of Science, Art and Culture committee responsible for a unique award.
The EMET Prize is a $1 million annual prize given for excellence in academic and professional achievements by the A.M.N. Foundation. It was endowed in 1999 by the late Alberto Moscona Nisim, a Mexican friend of Israel who objected to the fact that, at that time, no Israeli scientists had received Nobel Prizes.
“This was before Prof. Avraham Hershko and Prof. Aaron Ciechanover (along with US scientist Irwin Rose) received the 2004 Nobel Prize for the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation,” she pointed out.
Sela is working on fighting cancer, while Arnon is busy both on an anti-cancer vaccine and developing a universal influenza vaccine that would not have to be injected every year.
Together, however, along with the late Dvora Teitelbaum, they developed over many years the blockbuster drug to alleviate multiple sclerosis (MS) named Copaxone.
Originally called COP-1, it was shown in their lab to efficiently suppress experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis – an animal model of brain inflammation – and to be clinically beneficial in MS.
It has since helped many hundreds of thousands of patients around the world by reducing the number and severity of neurological attacks.
In MS, the body’s immune system plunders and damages the myelin sheath surrounding nerves in the brain and spinal cord that constitute the central nervous system. Acting like insulation on electrical wires, the myelin sheath facilitates the conduction of nerve signals along pathways. But when it is degraded, nerve signals are weakened or silenced, resulting in impaired functioning of systems that those nerves serve. “When we started the research, we didn’t even dream of discovering a drug,” Arnon – Weizmann’s Paul Ehrlich Professor of Immunology – recalled.
“I have been on the committee for several years. Michael asked me to join, and I did.
Michael has been here since the beginning,” Arnon said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. “It’s very hard for me to say ‘no’ to Michael. I am very busy,” said Arnon, who until a year ago was president of the prestigious Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem.
“There are meetings and decisions to be made, but they don’t take too much time.”
The members of the committee first have to pick the exact fields for which the EMET Prize will be given that year.
“Then we have to choose the three-member panels of judges in each field. The general categories are the exact sciences, life sciences, social sciences, humanities and Judaism, and art and culture.
For example, a number of years ago, an outstanding journalist was chosen for the social sciences category.
“Every year,” said Arnon, “the judges are different. There has to be at least one women on the three-member panel. I remember one year in which there were three women on a panel, but they picked a man to win the prize.”
The committee then meets to give the judges directives and receive their decisions and decide whether to approval them. “I don’t remember there having been disagreements when the winners are finally chosen.”
Usually, one outstanding individual receives a whole prize and doesn’t have to share it with someone “unless they collaborated or worked on two aspects of the same subject and complemented each other,” Arnon said. “There is no age limit to the candidates, but they must all be Israelis or at least live in Israel.”
Arnon added: “The chairman of the Award Committee is always a retired judge. It was previously Judge Ya’acov Kedmi, who died last year, so another judge must be chosen by the prime minister, who has been very busy. In the meantime, there is a temporary replacement.”
In any case, the prime minister always attends the festive award ceremony, usually in the fall, at the Jerusalem Theater.
Despite the prime minister’s involvement, the procedure is apolitical – which cannot always be said about the process in which winners of the Israel Prize are selected.
“The percentage of women who have received the EMET Prize since its founding has been relatively low. We can’t tell the judges whom to choose, but we would be pleased if there are more women laureates,” Arnon said.
Asked how the EMET Prize is unique, the Weizmann Institute scientist said that “the Israel Prize is very prestigious, but it does not include all the subjects that the EMET Prize does, including prizes in the arts and culture such as theater, music and dance.”
In addition, the EMET Prize awards much more money.
The Wolf Prize, which is often called “Israel’s Nobel Prize” and which both Sela and Arnon have received, is awarded more to foreigners than to Israelis. The EMET Prize, she said, “gives more of a chance for very accomplished individuals to get the recognition they deserve. And it is very well run.”
While Arnon is a recipient of the Israel Prize and has served as dean of the biology faculty at Weizmann as well as its vice president, Sela served as president of the outstanding Rehovot institute.
Sela is acclaimed for his immunology research, especially for his research on synthetic antigens – molecules that trigger the immune system to respond. This led to the discovery of the genetic control of the immune response, as well as to the design of vaccines based on synthetic molecules.
His joint research with Arnon on Copaxone took a long time: “We started with a theoretical study in 1967, but our results, including on monkeys, were published only eight years later. We then conducted the first clinical trial, which was published in 1977.”
The drug’s development was taken over by Israel’s Teva Pharmaceutical Company in 1987, and it took nine years to be approved by the drug authorities here and abroad.
“We spent 29 years working together on Copaxone. Developing a drug like this takes tremendous patience and a long life,” both of which he and Arnon have enjoyed.
Sela has been on the Award Committee since the EMET Prize was established, even he did not know the Mexican-Jewish donor. “I was a member of the selection committee for the Israel Prize several times, but never was involved in choosing outstanding people in the arts.” Amazingly, he himself received the Israel Prize in 1956, when he was only 35 years old.
His second wife, Sarah, who is 74, was introduced to Sela by Ariel Sharon and his wife Lily, not long after Sela’s first wife, Margalit, suddenly died of a heart attack. “She is my driver, taking me to Jerusalem and elsewhere. But she is also very busy in the executive of the Israel Opera. I don’t know even how to read musical notes.”
Sela recalls having a lot of satisfaction when outstanding mathematicians, physicists and other scientists received the EMET Prize. The ceremonies have usually been without controversy, but he does recall when author David Grossman – whose son was killed in the Lebanon War – refused to shake the hand of then-prime minister Ehud Olmert. “Olmert accepted his decision,” the scientist said.
Sela concludes that “life is never boring for me. I read, travel and work in the lab.
Being busy is the only way to be at my age.”
The deadline for submitting nominations for the award is April 20. This year prizes will be awarded in the following categories: computer engineering, cancer research, philosophy, economics and acting/directing. Applications can be found at www.
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