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As the story goes, Prof. Avraham Hershko doesn’t hold any patents for one of his greatest discoveries, the ubiquitin system of regulated protein degradation – a fundamental process that influences vital cellular events, including the cell cycle, the appearance of cancerous cells, and responses to inflammation and immunity. (We don’t believe it! So he pursued it just out of the “goodness of his heart“?)

It was more than 20 years ago that Hershko and his then-student – now Technion biochemistry professor Aharon Ciechanover – were intrigued by how cells go about discarding proteins and what impact the process has on disease. Working with proteins from bacteria and other organisms, they finally succeeded in purifying the agent that caused this degradation. They named it APF-1 (for ATP-dependent proteolysis factor 1) or ubiquitin.

While at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a post-doctoral degree, Ciechanover worked with another research team, uncovering the ubiquitin system and its role in DNA repair, the cell cycle, and the understanding that cellular protein turnover is vital to understanding how cells malfunction and cause disease.

Ubiquitin also seems to have a role in inflammation of tissue, so that applications of the team’s basic scientific discoveries could eventually be developed for chronic inflammatory diseases such as asthma and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. The biochemical mechanism of ubiquitin could also help improve the efficacy of chemotherapy drugs.

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