Israeli Nobel laureate receives award in memory of scientist who shaped Singapore's biomedical sector

SINGAPORE – An Israeli Nobel laureate received a prestigious award on Tuesday (Nov 30) in memory of a late molecular biologist who has been widely regarded as the “father of biomedical sciences in Singapore”.

World-renowned biochemist Aaron Ciechanover, 74, received the Sydney Brenner Memorial Award from Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat at the 2021 Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) Scientific Conference.

The late Dr Sydney Brenner was a pioneer in the field of molecular biology who played a key role in putting Singapore on the global biomedical map. He came up with the idea of setting up the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology here – the country’s first major research institute for science.

He died in 2019, at the age of 92.

Professor Ciechanover is among the next generation of biologists who built on Dr Brenner’s work in the field, continuing his legacy.

Prof Ciechanover is currently a Distinguished Research Professor at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology’s faculty of medicine in Haifa, Israel.

He is the second scientist to receive the memorial award, after Dr Semir Zeki, a Professor of Neuroesthetics at University College London, received it in 2019.

While Dr Brenner’s work focused on understanding the genetic code and the creation of protein molecules, Prof Ciechanover has spent his career delving into the darker side of the protein world – protein destruction.

Hailing Dr Brenner as one of his very few heroes, Prof Ciechanover said he was excited and humbled to receive the award in honour of the South African scientific giant.

He told The Straits Times: “I met him (Dr Brenner) several times in Israel, in the UK, and in Singapore… I was inspired mostly by his intellect and deep knowledge of biology, and certainly by his contributions.”

Dr Brenner also discovered the messenger RNA (mRNA) in 1961.

Mr Heng said regarding that ground-breaking discovery: “This paved the way for the mRNA-derived vaccines that have helped us turn the tide during this pandemic.”

Professor Aaron Ciechanover receiving the Sydney Brenner Memorial Award from Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat at the 2021 A*Star Scientific Conference on Nov 30, 2021. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

In the 1980s, Prof Ciechanover – then a graduate student at the university in Haifa – alongside his professor and a colleague in the United States discovered how cells deliver the “kiss of death” to kill off unwanted proteins in the body.

If this protein killing process does not work properly, it causes diseases, including cervical cancer and cystic fibrosis.

To kick off the process, a molecule called ubiquitin labels the proteins with the “kiss of death”. The doomed proteins are then fed into the cells’ “waste disposers” where they are chopped into pieces and destroyed.

This process is seen in DNA repair, quality control of newly-produced proteins, and important parts of the immune defence.

The team’s discovery led to the development of several drugs to fight diseases, and Prof Ciechanover and his mentor, Avram Hershko, became the first Israelis to win a Nobel science prize.

Prof Ciechanover noted that the process they discovered has changed the landscape of treating blood cancers such as multiple myeloma – a cancer that forms in a type of white blood cell.

“The disease was deadly. People died within a year or two after diagnosis, in agony, suffering. The drugs that were developed based on our discovery completely changed the clinical landscape of the disease. Some patients are cured completely,” he explained.

World-renowned biochemist Aaron Ciechanover at the 2021 Agency for Science, Technology and Research Scientific Conference on Nov 30, 2021. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Prof Ciechanover has not stopped studying ubiquitin and the protein degradation. He and his current research team are developing another candidate anti-cancer drug.

He added: “For sure, over the next few years, the market will see more drugs based on the ubiquitin system coming into beneficial use for patients with different diseases. This all came from curiosity-driven, basic research that started in the late 70s.”

Prof Ciechanover was one of the recipients of the 2019 Public Service Medal for his contributions to Singapore’s scientific talent strategy. He has also been a member of the National Research Foundation’s (NRF) Fellowship Evaluation Panel for about 16 years.

As part of the panel’s life sciences and medicine committees, Prof Ciechanover has been helping universities and institutions here “recruit the most brilliant scientists” from around the globe.

He added that being a member of the panel is one of his most enjoyable jobs.

Prof Ciechanover’s advice to Singapore scientists is to be less formal, to be more open to changes in direction, and to be less bureaucratic with “a little bit of free spirit.”

“We are asked about the Israeli success and we always say that it’s the little bit of the chaos in my country that adds to our (scientific) quality. So spicing up science in Singapore with a little bit of chaos will be helpful, I think.”

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