Hungarian-born Avram Hershko wins Nobel Prize for Chemistry

Avram Hershko, photo:

One of this year's Nobel Prize winners in chemistry is Avram Hershko - an Israeli scientist born in Hungary. His discovery sets out a new chapter in degrading proteins, which play a crucial role in the curing process of a number of neurological or tumour diseases.

Istvan Hargitai is a Professor of chemistry at the Budapest University of Technology and a personal friend of Mr Hershko.

"Hershko not only discovered the protein but also understood and explained its mechanism of action. The protein called Ubiquitin consists of six amino acids. It's a very small protein but capable of degrading very large proteins, which is important in our organism."

What can be the practical use of this discovery?

"The protein degrading process is important when a protein has fulfilled its action and is no longer needed in our organism. It may even become harmful, so it's very to destroy it. There are some illnesses that also are related to the presence of some unnecessary materials and Ubiquitin helps to degrade them. According to Hershko, our organism is very generous with energy. It doesn't spare energy and cares more for regulation. It creates proteins but then wants to destroy them once they are no longer useful. He says, if you want to cross a river, you may have to build a bridge but once we've crossed the river we no longer need the bridge and can burn it. This is what the organism does and Ubiqutin is the tool with which it does it."

What kind of illnesses can be cured?

"Various cancers come to mind and there is also hope to help Alzheimer's and Parkinson's patients. Even inflammation problems can be treated."

Hungary is very proud of Hershko, of course, but his story scarily reminds us of the story of Imre Kertesz, the 2002 Nobel Prize winner in literature...

"It is very sad that very few of the Nobel laureates who were Hungarian or of Hungarian origin, worked in Hungary. Kertesz was an exception but Hershko and the others had to leave for some reason or the other. They were forced out or felt that they didn't have a future in Hungary and they made their discoveries or creations abroad. Hershko was born in 1937 and was seven years old when he and his family were taken by Hungarian gendarmes to a ghetto and from one ghetto to another and where then directed to Auschwitz.

"Somehow at the last moment, their train got re-directed to Austria and they survived in a labour camp there - Hershko, his older brother, and his mother. His father was taken to a forced labour camp and was taken as a POW by Soviet troops but survived and returned to Hungary in 1947.

"Hershko's father was a teacher in the Jewish school in Korzo, which was a town of about 25,000 people with a one thousand strong Jewish population. After the war there was practically no one to teach and they moved to Budapest and left for Israel in 1950."