By Avigayil Kadesh
There’s a certain quality about Israeli medical students that Brooklyn-born Prof. Howard (Chaim) Cedar admires: “They are fantastic, unbelievably motivated, intelligent and creative,” says the award-winning developmental biologist.
The same could be said of Cedar and his family. Just the night before, they’d all come to see him accept his latest accolade, a $50,000 Rothschild Prize
in recognition of his groundbreaking epigenetics research on the workings of DNA and the genetics of cancer.
Now 69 and still biking six miles to work every day, Cedar holds the distinction of having been the first American to complete a government-sponsored MD-PhD Medical Scientist Training Program at New York University.
Cedar has been teaching and conducting research at the Hadassah-Hebrew University School of Medicine since immigrating to Israel two weeks short of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He arrived with his wife, Zipora, five-year-old Joseph and two-year-old Dahlia. Joseph
grew up to become one of Israel’s most successful filmmakers.
In light of the senior Cedar’s 1999 Israel Prize and the junior Cedar’s two Oscar nominations, it’s impossible for reporters not to wonder aloud whether art imitates life. Joseph Cedar’s newest film, Footnote, centers around the fraught relationship between a scholarly Jerusalem father and son as the father mistakenly receives word of winning an Israel Prize intended for his son.
Speaking in his medical school office, Cedar fields the inevitable question with a ready smile. “It’s a big joke in our family,” he says. “There’s very little relationship between the film and reality, but the movie is brought up almost every time there’s a prize awarded -- even in a meeting between academics with no connection to me or Joseph. I recently sat on a prize committee and it came up about 10 times.”
The secret life of DNA
Though he’s clearly proud of Joseph and his five other children, Cedar is also the proud papa -- together with his colleague Aharon Razin -- of the field of epigenetics, which studies how, when and why the genes inside all body cells do their specific tasks. Each one has the potential to play many roles. The two scientists’ discovery was a process called methylation, which chemically turns off all but one potentiality. This is why, for example, a nerve cell does not turn into a skin cell.
“It involves a lot of controlled orchestration,” he explains. “If you look at the genetic information we have from our parents, there are two aspects. One is ‘text,’ a language that tells the body how to make all its different components. We discovered the second aspect, which is ‘annotations’ in the text. In chemical terms, the annotation is a methylation, and that allows the cells to read the text.”
Cedar says it took a very long time to prove and establish the concept of methylation. Today, many American and European scientists are working toward practical applications of DNA methylation in areas such as agriculture. Cedar continues to study its basics. He’s officially retired, but as long as their scientists attract grant money, Hebrew University gives them lab space.
Cedar in his Hadassah office. Photo by Yoray Liberman
“Now our research is more concerned with what controls the annotation, an even more basic question,” he says. “This has direct bearing on cancer, because when cells undergo change, it’s not a change in text but in annotation. If we can control the annotation we could make a big contribution to alleviating, preventing, diagnosing and treating cancer.”
For the past 40 years, he has eaten lunch every workday with Razin. “We are no longer doing joint experiments, but I do collaborate with others. The field will have an impact in many years,” he predicts. “It’s just beginning. We have a lot to learn and there’s a lot of potential. The whole area of stem-cell harvesting and manipulation is dependent on an understanding of epigenetics.”
Contributing to the world
Cedar was brought up in a patriotic, religious American Jewish family. “As a child I was always aware of Israel as something special,” he says, “but as I got older I became really enamored of Israel.”
The seed of aliyah was planted during a summer 1965 position at a Hebrew University lab. Meeting Zipora, who was alsothe strongly Zionistic, Zipora the following year sealed the deal. First the couple finished their respective studies and then Cedar worked in public health for two years at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in return for his exemption from military service in Vietnam.
While at NIH, he wrote to his former lab manager in Jerusalem and nailed down a position and temporary housing. He has been at Hebrew University ever since.
“I am a little infected with the idea that part of being Jewish is contributing to the world, and coming here meant I would be able to represent the Jewish people in whatever I do,” says Cedar.
His children have taken that philosophy in several directions. Dahlia, following her mother’s example, is a psychodrama therapist and teacher. Noa, an epidemiologist with the Ministry of Health, also sells seeds, nuts and dried fruits in Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market
. Yoav, trained in special education, recently switched over to social work. Yonatan is a piano teacher and accompanist to vocalists, and university student Daniel works as a guide with groups such as Birthright.
In addition to the Israel Prize in biology, Cedar received the 2008 Wolf Prize in Medicine jointly with Razin, the 2009 EMET Prize for his work in cancer research, and the 2011 Canada Gairdner Award, again with Razin, for their pioneering discoveries on DNA methylation. Like the fictional father in Footnote, he is a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.