Accomplishing the impossible

The EMET prize’s winners are examples of Israelis doing what they do best: thinking outside the box and bringing innovation to the rest of the world.

Alexander Levitzki (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alexander Levitzki
(photo credit: Courtesy)
EMET Prizes are awarded to individuals who have moved their fields forward in unprecedented ways, said Dr. Hadassah Shani, who sits on one of the prize selection committees. It’s a fitting description for the 2017 EMET winners, among them Prof. Jacob Ziv, a leader in the fields of data compression, information theory and statistical communication theory.
Ziv is the first-ever computer engineering awardee in the exact sciences category.
Ziv said modestly about his reception of the prize, “Hopefully I’ll inspire some new engineers.”
Ziv is well-known for his universal lossless data compression algorithm, Lempel– Ziv–Welch (LZW), the first widely used universal data compression method on computers. A large English text file can typically be compressed via LZW to about half its original size. It can also be used to compress GIF, TIFF and PDF files.
The system works with what Ziv calls pointers.
“It’s like a siddur [prayer book]. Every Shmone Esrei ends with Aleinu. But most siddurs don’t print Aleinu every time.
They just note, ‘Say Aleinu here,’ and then indicate the page number. This is a pointer, and it saves space,” Ziv explained.
“It’s quite simple, but no one else thought of it.”
As seems to be a theme among this year’s EMET prize winners, in the cases of Zelig Eshhar and Alexander Levitzki, not only did no one “think of it,” but no one believed what they accomplished could be done. The professors, 2017 winners in the life sciences category for their cancer research, designed totally new approaches to fighting the deadly disease.
Eshhar was the first to “recruit the immune system to recognize cancer and reject cancer.” His therapy involves extracting a patient’s own T-cells and genetically modifying them to home in on the tumors and leave the healthy tissue alone. The process, so-called “adoptive cell transfer,” involves engineering the extracted cells with new receptors known as chimeric antigen receptors, or CARs, that are designed to recognize proteins specifically found on tumors. The modified cells are multiplied outside the body and then re-injected into the patient.
Earlier this month, the US Food and Drug Administration voted to approve the treatment – the first gene therapy product ever approved by the FDA – for people aged three to 25 whose bodies have resisted other treatments, such as chemotherapy, or who have relapsed. It is most effective in the treatment of the blood cancer lymphoblastic leukemia.
The therapy based on his research was created by Novartis.
“We knew that the T-cells have the ability to destroy tissue. The question was how to convince them to attack cancerous tissue, which they do not normally recognize as foreign or harmful,” he said, noting that he began working on the concept for the therapy in the 1980s. Today, as many as 50% of patients who are treated with the therapy reject the tumors and enter a complete remission.
His team is working on whether the same or similar treatment can be used to treat other types of cancer.
Said Eshhar, who is also an Israel Prize winner, said, “The real prize is that patients are getting cured.”
Relatedly, the other life sciences winner this year pushed the cancer-treatment envelope.
“People did not believe you could design specific inhibitors as effective agents against cancer,” Levitzki told The Jerusalem Post.
But he and members of his laboratory decided to try it anyway, since Levitzki remembered his lessons from enzymology very well – namely that small differences in the active sites among related enzymes result in the ability to generate selective inhibitors. Their studies on tyrosine kinase inhibitors formed the basis for the development of 26 drugs currently used for the treatment of patients with chronic myeloid leukemia, lung cancer, breast cancer, as well as other cancers.
There are many more in the pipeline.
Now Levitzki is working on a strategy to induce an immune response against the tumor that would discriminate between the cells of the tumor and their normal cell counterparts.
Levitzki said that cancer research in general is still only in its beginning stages and he hopes the EMET prize win will inspire young doctors and researchers to enter the cancer research field.
“There is a lot to be done,” Levitzki said. “There are many possibilities for many people to contribute and make breakthroughs in the field.”
In the humanities category, David Heyd is only the second philosopher to take home the EMET prize. He told the Post that his interest in philosophy began in high school. Although he studied philosophy in college, Heyd never thought it could (or would) become a career.
Today, Heyd is a nationally recognized scholar whose philosophical thoughts have had influence on national medical and legal-medical issues. He has taken an active part in public debates about – and the formation of laws and regulations on – a wide array of bioethical issues. He served as a member of government committees on surrogacy, euthanasia, organ donation and genetic technologies, and was a member of the National Council for Bioethics, Hadassah’s Helsinki committee, the ethics committee of the Israel Association of Fertility and head of the Ethics in Research Committee of the Hebrew University.
Heyd said the hardest question he ever had to answer was whether a child can sue his parents (or any third party) for having been given a wrongful life.
“Let’s say you plan to have a child and you find out that child is going to be born with a problem,” Heyd explained.
“But you are told if you abort that child and wait two years, the next child will be all right. You have the sick child. Can the child say you wronged him by bringing him into the word? What are our duties to future, nonexistent people?” Heyd’s conclusion, which has legal implications: People cannot regret having been born or cannot say not being born in the first place would have been better for them. This is now how the court of Israel rules.
Heyd is careful to admit he does not think philosophers should take the place of scientists and doctors when it comes to making medical decisions.
“I am an expert in moral philosophy, but not morality,” Heyd said.
However, he said having a philosopher at the table for medical ethics discussions provides a set of analytical tools that likely could not be put forth by people less trained in philosophy. Philosophers can map problems and examine possible implications of solutions without being involved in the matter at hand.
Winning the EMET prize is a big deal for Heyd – the first prize of its kind he has received – and he is “very excited.”
He also hopes it will serve as an encouragement for young adults to consider a career in the humanities.
“Humanities all over the world are in some sort of crisis,” said Heyd, referring to the modern academic focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). “Students should know that subjects like philosophy can have impact on the real world.”
One of the winners of the Culture and Art prize, Oded Kotler, has certainly had impact on Israel. According to EMET prize judge Shani, Kotler is one of, if not the, leader of Israeli theater.
“For six decades, he has been dedicated to Israeli theater,” Shani told the Post.
“He founded a number of theater organizations and guilds and inspired young actors from Acre to Neveh Tzedek.”
Shani said the EMET Prize committees are charged with finding recipients who are both professionally excellent and who move their fields forward in some way.
Kotler – who is receiving the EMET Prize together with Yevgeny Arye, who has been directing the Tel Aviv's Gesher Theater since he helped found it in 1991 – launched the Acre Festival of Alternative Israeli Theater, transforming the northern Israeli city into an artistic center. He managed the Israel Festival, bringing new, different and influential artists to the Jewish state for the first time. And he taught – and continues to teach – to share his knowledge and artistic spirit.
“He is an entrepreneur,” said Shani.
“He is always looking to do something new in the field. When we looked at the people who were being considered – and they were all good candidates – you just couldn’t not give it to him.”
Prof. Assaf Razin won the Social Sciences prize for helping elucidate the theory and consequences of population growth and its interactions with surrounding economic environments.
What’s the secret sauce for getting to where these winners are today? There isn’t one, according to the winners. But all of them praised their academic institutions and/or colleagues that promoted interdisciplinary collaboration and asked the right questions.
“Get a good education,” said Ziv. “You must learn basic knowledge and that will enable you to deal with new science and technologies as they appear. This younger generation has a lot to look forward to.”
This article is written in cooperation with The EMET prize.