Science and Health: Prof. Howard Cedar: The next Israeli Nobel laureate?

His work on DNA methylation focused on a very basic aspect of animal cell biology that will affect medical treatment in the future.

Howard Cedar 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Howard Cedar 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Jerusalem Post doesn't have the $100,000 to give him that he has already received as a recipient of the 2008 Wolf Prize (considered Israel's Nobel), but Prof. Howard Cedar of the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School deserves our title of Person of the Year for Science and Health. The religiously observant scientist, who won the Israel Prize in Biology eight years ago, has had a lot of good news this year, as he is the father of Joseph Cedar, director of the award-winning film Beaufort, which was a finalist for a foreign-film Oscar. Cedar (the name was changed by his grandfather from Siddur, or prayer book), was born in the US in 1943, graduated from medical school and received his doctorate from New York University in 1970. After doing research at the US National Institutes of Health, he came on aliya with his wife Tzippi and has been at the Jerusalem medical school's department of cellular biochemistry and human genetics ever since. His work (with HU Prof. Yehudit Bergman and others) on DNA methylation (chemical changes in the DNA molecule) focused on a very basic aspect of animal cell biology that will affect medical treatment in the future. This molecular process turns on and off the approximately 40,000 genes in the human body. Cedar explains that everyone inherits genetic information, but that it "has to be used in a programmed manner. That programming is called epigenetics. The older one gets, the more likely the programming mechanism is to make mistakes. One thing that these changes in epigenetics control could predispose a person to cancer. That would explain why cancer is largely a disease of old age." In only 5 percent of cancer cases, "methylation is not involved," he says. "The drug industry today is now heading toward customized treatment. I think methylation is the next stage, as it is common to almost every tumor. If you can find a way to prevent it, you will get a bigger bang for your buck." Two years after he received the Israel Prize, Cedar and colleagues published an article in the prestigious journal Nature describing the process whereby genes in living organisms are turned on and off. The team spent a full five years on its work. The findings provide information fundamental to understanding how an embryo develops and for deciphering the genetic defects that lead to cancer. It is believed that this discovery will also help scientists develop better methods for therapeutic genetic engineering and provide the technology needed to ensure that when genes are inserted they will always be active.