Nobel Laureate ‘Driven by Curiosity’

November 24, 2014
Michael Kaufman
Michael Kaufman

I had the privilege recently of interviewing Aaron Ciechanover, MD, DSc, one of three co-recipients of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for pioneering research that ultimately led to targeted therapy for treatment of cancer.

I had the privilege recently of interviewing Aaron Ciechanover, MD, DSc, one of three co-recipients of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for pioneering research that ultimately led to targeted therapy for treatment of cancer.

Aaron Ciechanover, director of the Lorry I. Lokey Interdisciplinary Center for Life Sciences and Engineering at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, together with fellow Israeli Avram Hershko, MD, PhD, and Irwin Rose, PhD, of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, shared the award after 30 years of collaborative investigation that included discovery of the ubiquitin proteasome system-the body’s method of removing damaged proteins.

In 2003, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved bortezomib (Velcade), the first drug to specifically target the ubiquitin system, for treatment of multiple myeloma. Since the approval of bortezomib, other targeted therapies have been approved for treatment of various types of cancer, and new targeted agents are currently being investigated in clinical trials or are in earlier stages of development.

I asked Ciechanover what he finds most gratifying about his work. I expected him to say it’s that people with cancer are living longer and have a better quality of life thanks to his and colleagues’ research. But his answer was more complex and illuminating. “There is no one moment of ‘Eureka.’ It is hard work, going for decades, and you never know at the moment, even if you find something that looks exciting, how it will turn out. You may think it’s exciting, but you certainly don’t know whether it’s important because it’s new and there is no time perspective. Only time can tell. And it is mostly time that is not so much via your work but via work of others that take it further, and  who further distill it and bring it to the next stage and the next stage and then, finally to a drug or something that can benefit humankind.”

Does he feel a connection between his work and the targeted therapy that is extending lives and improving quality of life of cancer patients? “Yes,” he replied, “it is a major source of satisfaction. But the connection was not seen at the beginning. It took 30 years. There was no way to prophesize or predict it. But when you do it you are doing it because you’re driven by curiosity. And I’m still driven by curiosity. All I want to know is the secrets of God, the secrets of nature. So I am curiosity driven and then good things come out of it…"

“But as a good scientist I am interested in dueling with God or with nature or whoever God is, it doesn’t matter, and understanding the secrets of creation. If something good comes out of our work, let it be. Many good things have come out of our work and many will come.  But that is not necessarily the drive because you don’t know when you do it that something will come out. When you do it you are driven by curiosity and I am still driven by curiosity and I’m happy that it ended up with beneficial drugs for people. It is a major source of satisfaction. But I did not start out with the intent to do it. But it happens. That is the beauty of science….that you cannot predict. You just have to push hard and then it happens.”

Ciechanover is a prominent figure in Israel, known for speaking out on a wide range of public issues. He has called for a change in national priorities to strengthen the country’s education and higher education systems. He also serves on the board of Tufts University’s Science Training Encouraging Peace – Graduate Training Program (STEP – GTP), which provides graduate and postgraduate-level health and science education pairing together Israeli and Palestinian graduate students. “I believe that even if politically you don’t agree with your neighbors….At the end of the day what the mother wants for her family is for her children to grow up and have good health services, a good education, and to see them flourishing,” says Ciechanover. “Science is a language of peace. The drugs that were developed following our discovery don’t have a message on the package that says, ‘Aimed for Jews only.’ They are drugs for people. And I believe that people are people anywhere in the world.”