Focusing Talent In The Fight Against Cancer: The Israel Cancer Research Fund

Issue 25 Summer/Fall 2015

In 1975, physician and cancer researcher Dr. Daniel Miller, a pioneer in the field of cancer prevention, took a fateful trip to Israel. He quickly understood that the country had an abundance of gifted medical scientists, but was losing them as a lack of funds forced young investigators to migrate abroad.

Collaborating with a group of American and Canadian doctors, researchers and lay people, Miller founded the Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) – now the leading U.S.-based charity devoted to supporting cancer research in Israel.

Dr. Howard Cedar

Dr. Howard Cedar

By 1977, the fledgling group was already awarding its first five grants, at $25,000 each, to scientists working in Israel.

In those early years many may have hoped – but few could have predicted – just how big an impact the ICRF would have on research into cancer treatment and prevention over the next four decades.

In fact, by 2015 the ICRF has “hit an important milestone in the life-saving work of our organization by awarding more than $50 million in research grants since 1977,” said Eric Heffler, the group’s National Executive Director.

“The $50 million represents well over 2,000 cancer research projects conducted in Israel at all of the leading institutions around the country,” he said. “Not only are we finding more cures and treatments for cancer, but we are also finding new ways to prevent it, as well.”

Focusing on young cancer researchers with innovative new ideas, ICRF selects awardees through a rigorous peerreview process conducted by an expert scientific panel. That focus on excellence has paid off, especially in the field of cancer prevention.

A partial list of ICRF-funded work with implications for cancer prevention:

  • The work of the Weizmann Institute’s Drs. Moshe Oren and Varda Rotter. Oren’s lab in the 1980s pioneered the investigation of the structure and location of the p53 protein, a potent tumor suppressor, and Rotter’s lab also continues that work today.
  • In 1989, another Weizmann investigator, Dr. Yosef Saul, developed a vaccine against the hepatitis B virus, a prime cause of liver cancer.
  • Beginning in the 1990s and ongoing today, Dr. Ephrat Levy-Lahad’s lab at Shaarei Zedek Medical Center investigates the role of BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations in breast cancer risk among Israeli women, and whether a carrier’s risk changes based on her environment or reproductive history.
    Her lab also discovered a variant of another gene, called RAD51, which further boosts breast cancer risk for BRCA2 carriers.
  • In 2004, Drs. Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko of Technion, Israel Institute of Technology become the first Israelis to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences, for their ICRF-funded work on the ubiquitin system – crucial to cancer’s origins in the cell.
  • Award-winning work by Hebrew University’s Dr. Howard Cedar, whose work on DNA methylation – a process that activates or suppresses genes – is furthering our understanding of cancer’s origins, and how to prevent it.

Oren said the ICRF funding he received was crucial to his work on p53. Decades ago, study of this protein was in “its infancy,” he said, and ICRF was his only source of funding.

“In many ways, the contribution of the ICRF is unique,” Oren said, “giving more chances to more people to try as many ideas as possible, in the hope of bringing out the best of what the Israeli cancer research community has to offer.”

Dr. Aaron Ciechanover

Dr. Aaron Ciechanover

Yashar Hirshaut, ICRF Chairman Emeritus, said that, “when we established the organization, we could not have imagined the tremendous worldwide benefit that would result.”

That legacy of innovation is only the beginning, added ICRF president Brad Goldhar.

He believes that, “through expanded funding, we can continue to support the vital research that is needed to treat – and ultimately prevent – cancer, while playing a critical role in helping to keep Israel’s finest scientist talent in Israel.”