Grapevine August 27, 2023: Prestigious prize

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 RONEN JAFFA (left) and Avi Gruber. (photo credit: Uriel Cohen)
RONEN JAFFA (left) and Avi Gruber.
(photo credit: Uriel Cohen)

The awarding of international prizes is to some extent an exercise in public diplomacy. Many prize recipients, who have never previously visited the countries in which the award ceremonies take place, spend at least a few days attending receptions and sightseeing. In that manner, they learn something of the history and the people of that country, and any good impressions they have are shared with relatives, friends, and colleagues when they return home. Almost every academic institution awards both international and local prizes; and prizes not necessarily attached to universities, research institutions, or think tanks, are awarded by foundations that operate globally, or at least bi-nationally.

Among the prestige prizes awarded in Israel to academics, musicians, and writers from around the world are the Harvey Prize, the EMET Prize, the Dan David Prize, the Wolf Prize, the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society (a biennial literary award), and the Arthur Rubinstein Award for piano. There are several others, but these are the best known and many of the laureates have subsequently been awarded the Nobel Prize, considered to be the most prestigious in the world.

The Harvey Prize which is awarded annually by Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, is a $75,000 prize that was established in 1971 by industrialist and inventor the late Leo Harvey, an ardent supporter of the Technion and the State of Israel. It is awarded for outstanding achievements in science and technology. More than 30% of Harvey Prize laureates have gone on to receive the Nobel Prize.

The Technion recently disclosed the names of the newest laureates, who will receive their awards in June 2024 as part of the Technion’s centenary celebrations, during the meeting of the Board of Governors.

The honorees are Prof. Emerita Helen Quinn from SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory; and in the field of Human Health: Prof. Katalin Kariko and Prof. Drew Weissman from the University of Pennsylvania, and Prof. Pieter R. Cullis from the department of biochemistry of the University of British Columbia.

 A campus view of the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, on February 19, 2019.  (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
A campus view of the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, on February 19, 2019. (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

Quinn is a particle physicist and an educator. She is a former president of the American Physical Society and a member of the US National Academy of Sciences

Together with the late Roberto Peccei, Quinn introduced the Peccei-Quinn Symmetry, which explains the invariance of the strong interactions under the combination of parity and charge-conjugation. The particles predicted by this symmetry, known as axions, may furthermore constitute the dark matter that makes up most of the matter in the universe, according to gravitational measurements. Quinn also showed, together with theoretical physicists Howard Georgi and the late Steven Weinberg, that despite their different strengths at low energies, the strong, weak, and electromagnetic interactions may originate from a single force at high energies, leading to the theoretical framework known as grand unification. 

Her scientific discoveries broke new ground in theoretical physics, generated new research paths in both theoretical and experimental physics, and may constitute a major advancement in the understanding of the basic structure of the universe.

The research of Kariko, Weissman, and Cullis enabled the rapid development and delivery of effective COVID-19 vaccines. Their fundamental discoveries revolutionized the delivery of effective and safe vaccinations, bringing about new types of therapeutics, as well as potential genetic therapies that contributed to the well-being of humans.

Kariko is a biochemist focused on RNA biology. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Szeged, Hungary. For the past 24 years, she has worked at the University of Pennsylvania as a professor of neurosurgery. She was noted for her exceptional persistence in working on mRNA, despite the non-acceptance by the academic establishment of the potential of the field at that time. For her groundbreaking work, she has received numerous awards including the Japan Prize, the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, the Paul Ehrlich Prize, the Benjamin Franklin Medal, the Jessie Stevenson Kovalenko Medal, the Tang Prize, the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize, and the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award.

Weissman is an immunologist focused on RNA biology. He opened his lab in 1997 at the University of Pennsylvania, focusing on RNA and vaccines. Currently, he is developing methods to replace genetically deficient proteins, edit the genome, and specifically target cells and organs, all relying on RNA. He is the recipient of multiple awards, including the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award, the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, and the VinFuture Prize. Together with Kariko, he is recognized for his pioneering work in developing nucleoside-modified mRNA, thereby successfully suppressing the inflammatory response to mRNA molecules and opening the door to RNA-based therapeutics.

Cullis, of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of British Columbia, has made fundamental advances in the development of nanomedicines employing lipid nanoparticle (LNP) technology for cancer therapies, gene therapies, and vaccines. He developed unique lipid nanoparticles that protect and deliver mRNA into cells ­– the platform that was later adapted for RNA-based vaccines.

Cullis established his own lab at the University of British Columbia. He co-founded two Canadian Networks of Centres of Excellence, the Centre for Drug Research and Development (now adMare) and the NanoMedicines Innovation Network. Like his colleagues, he has many awards to his credit.

ENOSH hostel opened in Netanya

■ ENOSH, THE Israeli Mental Health Association, has established a hostel in Netanya for women who are coping with mental health issues and addiction, and are eager to rehabilitate themselves and find their places in mainstream society. Enosh executive director Dr. Hilla Hadas, says that re-entry into the community is of paramount importance during the rehabilitation process because it indicates that the individual is on the way to return to a fully independent and meaningful life. It also means the removal of stigmas associated with mental illness she emphasizes.

Tay-Sachs Disease Awareness Month

■ SEPTEMBER IS Tay-Sachs Disease Awareness Month. Tay-Sachs is a life-threatening disease of the nervous system with symptoms that usually surface in infancy and lead to death in early childhood. When both parents carry a mutation or change in the Tay-Sachs gene, each of their children is at 25% risk for the disease. Tay-Sachs is more common in people with Ashkenazi Jewish background but occurs in all populations, so Jewish, interfaith, and non-Jewish couples are all at risk for having affected children.

Although there are fewer cases today than in past years, Tay-Sachs has not been eradicated, and many rabbis around the world counsel couples to get tested before they get married. The results will cause some couples to cancel their wedding plans, while others may decide to adopt rather than bring their own biological children into the world.

JScreen, headquartered at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia is dedicated to preventing genetic diseases and hereditary cancer by promoting greater awareness of the benefits of testing, thereby considerably reducing child fatalities and parental misery. Testing is not always foolproof. For the purpose of its awareness campaign, JScreen interviewed heartbroken Jewish parents who had lost their children to Tay-Sachs and are now resolute in their determination to try to ensure that other parents will not endure the agony and anguish that they experienced.

Bonnie Davis from Portland, Oregon; Kevin and Lisajane Romer from Boca Raton, South Florida; and Shari Ungerleider from Wayne, New Jersey all lost children, and all are engaged in an effort to prevent others from experiencing the same painful loss.

Although both the Romers were tested and found not to be carriers, their son Matthew was nevertheless diagnosed with Tay-Sachs. They later learned that their screening tests had been improperly administered and interpreted. In addition to caring for their dying son, the Romers made it their immediate mission to improve testing procedures and protocols. They did not want any other parents to be blindsided, and they also wanted to do something to preserve the memory of their son, so they founded The Mathew Forbes Romer Foundation which partners with JScreen.

In Israel, a national carrier screening program was introduced in 1978, under the auspices of the Health Ministry.

Urban Renewal

■ URBAN RENEWAL has become not only an Israeli policy but an Israeli obsession. Wherever one travels in the country, there are signs of construction. Roads are blocked; sidewalks have been destroyed; construction cranes dominate the skyline and the skeletons of tall towers reach even higher than the cranes.

All this is going on while Israel continues to warn the world of what will happen if Iran develops nuclear power, and Iran itself boasts that it has missiles that can hit targets in Tel Aviv. Yet Israel continues to build ever upwards.

Among the most recent urban renewal announcements is one by Ronen Jaffa, the CEO of the Donitz-Elad Group and Avi Gruber, the mayor of Ramat Sharon who, during the demolition of old buildings in the Neve Magan neighborhood, revealed some details of a billion shekel investment in the creation of a new Neve Magen consisting of nine apartment complexes – each with 112 residential units. 

In an area of the neighborhood in which there are still old buildings that remain to be demolished, there will be seven residential complexes, each housing large apartments. The complexes will range in height from 9-21 floors, each with a luxurious penthouse, and garden apartments. The plan includes public areas. No date was given for the completion of the project, nor the price range of apartments, nor was it stated when people who were residents of Neve Magen will be able to return and where they will be accommodated in the interim.