HOWARD “HAIM” CEDAR –
A LEADER AT BSF AND IN GENETIC RESEARCH
Modest and unpretentious, Howard “Haim” Cedar, MD., Ph.D., the Harry and Helen L. Brenner Chair in Molecular Biology at the Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem and a member of the Israel Academy of Science, has served on the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF) Board of Governors for four years. A former award recipient and panelist, Cedar knows better than most the importance of this funding organization. “The BSF is funding wonderful, wonderful scientific work through the collaborative partnerships,” he said. “Our concept is to engage scientists. We wrestle with wanting to support more research teams or giving more money to fewer laboratories. While the amounts might not be tremendous, we want to encourage people to work together. And, there is another goal. From the Israeli side, we want to increase the exposure of our scientists to those in the United States. Another important goal is to keep the success rate in the 25 - 30% range so that we encourage the best applicants to seek funding.”
Howard Cedar, M.D., Ph.D.
Further, said Cedar, “Yair Rotstein, Executive Director of the BSF is a wonderful person who gives of himself to this organization. He makes sure everything is done in a quality manner.”
Cedar emigrated with his family from New York to Israel in 1973 where he joined the faculty of the Hebrew University, becoming a full professor in 1981. During his ensuing career, Cedar’s ground-breaking research has received prominent recognition including the Israel Prize and the Wolf Prize in Medicine, the Israeli version of the Nobel. In 2008, he was appointed the Hebrew University’s first Edmond J. Safra Distinguished Professor. He received the highly-prestigious Emet Prize in Life Sciences in 2009; and, more recently, became one of five recipients of the 2011 Canada Gairdner International Awards.
A pioneer whose curiosity continues to this day, Cedar’s work concerns how cells select the genetic information they need to function and ignore the rest of the genetic package. He describes the genetic information, or DNA, contained within every cell of our bodies as “an instruction booklet.”
Cells contain the same genetic information, or operating instructions, but they must be regulated according to their different functions. As Cedar explained, “the booklet is annotated, it is underlined, highlighted and things have been crossed out. This is called DNA methylation and is a form of regulation that determines when a gene is turned on or off. The annotation doesn’t change the text, it allows the DNA to understand the text better.” This ensures, as Cedar puts it, that “liver cells behave as liver cells and kidney cells as kidney cells.” When a gene methylates abnormally, it can generate cancer cells. So if researchers can find a way to inhibit the abnormality, they could alleviate certain types of cancer. Methylation may also revolutionize the way diabetes is treated and may help understand the programming of stem cells.
This world-class scientist also has a personal side. Cedar and his wife have six children and 21 grandchildren and he loves spending time with them. He also enjoys cycling and trips with his family. Another love is mentoring young scientists, helping them analyze and hearing more about their interests.
He is plainly an advocate of Israeli science. “The science culture is very strong in Israel,” said Cedar, “As it is in the United States. We have a lot in common, there is a shared line of communication between scientists. In both countries, people grow up learning to ask questions, being critical and giving credit to others. This is important to our shared culture and why scientists from our two countries work so well together.”
“There are different types of science,” he said, “applied and basic. In Israel, most of the work is basic research done in small labs built on a specific idea. This is the hallmark of Israeli research. BSF is an avenue for sharing this basic research with the world.”