Nearly four decades later, the native New Yorker—and Harry and Helen L. Brenner Chair in Molecular Biology at the Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem—is gaining international recognition for pioneering research on human development and genetic expression. More specifically, he, with fellow HU professor Aharon Razin, has advanced the knowledge on DNA methylation—or the chemical changes in a DNA molecule—for which he was awarded the 2008 Wolf Prize, the Israeli version of the Nobel. The work could substantially alter how doctors approach disease treatments—and just might lead to a cure for cancer.
Every cell in the body contains the same genetic information, or operating instructions, but they must be regulated according to their different functions. DNA methylation is a form of regulation and determines when a gene is turned on or off. 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.
Cedar humbly describes his work the way someone might recite a recipe. But Andrew Chess, professor at the Center for Human Genetic Research at Massachusetts General Hospital, says it applies to the development of basically every animal and plant: “Because many human diseases, including cancer, are caused by perturbations in the readings of genes and the genome, it’s an outstanding contribution to the basic knowledge of medical science.”
While he may downplay his accomplishments, Cedar seems cognizant of his bracha vehazlaha—Hebrew for blessings and success—over the past year. In addition to winning the prestigious Wolf award, which includes a $100,000 prize, his son Joseph Cedar (TSOA ’95) wrote and directed the Israeli film Beaufort, which received a 2008 Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. And last June, Cedar welcomed his twelfth granddaughter into the family. “Even after 12,” he says, “it’s still very special.”
photo © Sasson Tiram