Nobel-winning UCSF doctor has strong ties with Israel

Still reeling over winning the Nobel Prize in medicine for a discovery that landed him Israel's prestigious Wolf Prize a year ago, Dr. Stanley B. Prusiner said he has long taken pride in his ventures with Israeli institutions.

"I've had lots of collaboration with Israeli things, and will continue contributing research work with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem," the UCSF neurologist said during a phone interview Monday. The San Franciscan was in Maryland attending a meeting of the Food and Drug Administration Advisory Committee.

Besieged by reporters and a barrage of phone calls after being awakened before dawn, the Nobelist said he was exhausted.

Prusiner, 55, was awarded the Nobel Prize for his 1982 hypothesis that several rare brain diseases in humans and animals were caused by prions, a microscopic life form that manages to self-replicate without any traces of RNA or DNA.

A professor of neurology, biochemistry and biophysics who has been described as a maverick scientist, Prusiner linked mad cow disease to a human brain disorder. He received Israel's $100,000 Wolf Prize in medicine in the spring of 1996. Each Nobel category carries a $1 million prize.

Professor Oded Abramsky, head of the neurology department at Hadassah-University Hospital in Jerusalem's Ein Kerem, nominated Prusiner for the Wolf Prize as well as for the Nobel Prize. In a Jerusalem Post article, he described Prusiner as a "close personal friend and an excellent friend of Israel."

Seventeen Wolf Prize recipients have gone on to receive the Nobel Prize, according to the Jerusalem Post.

A longtime member of San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel, Prusiner said, "I've gotten a lot of honors from the Jewish community. In fact, my first honorary degree was from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1995."

Speaking from his hotel room, where he had disconnected his phone earlier, Prusiner said he expected the volume of phone calls to continue even on Yom Kippur.

Asked if he thought there was a fortuitous connection between receiving the Nobel Prize during the High Holy Days, he exploded with laughter.

"That's like asking me if I believe in that code book. You know, that one on hidden codes in the Torah. I'm a scientist," he said.

Prusiner will return to San Francisco to attend Yom Kippur services this weekend with his family.

"Stan and his family have been very committed members of our synagogue for more than a dozen years," said Rabbi Martin Weiner of Sherith Israel, where Prusiner's daughter Helen was confirmed in 1995. His younger daughter, Leah, will celebrate her bat mitzvah in early 1999.

The scientist's wife, Sandra, "is a very active member of our weekly readers group and a coach of our Headstart program," the rabbi added.

Weiner described Prusiner as an extraordinary human being with amazing energy and creativity who has pushed forward the frontiers of medicine.

Although Prusiner is now regarded as an international authority in the study of dementia-related illnesses, the scientific community scoffed in disbelief after he announced in 1982 that several rare brain diseases in humans and animals were caused by prions, a microscopic life form that has no traces of RNA or DNA.

Prions, which are proteinaceous infectious particles, have been linked to scrapie in sheep as well as to human disorders, including Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare, fatal neurological disease that has a higher incidence among Jews of Libyan or Tunisian descent. Prions may also be linked to Alzheimer's disease.

Prusiner discovered that the proteins can cause infectious diseases, like bacteria or viruses, as well as hereditary illnesses.

"They thought his discovery was borderline crazy. No one believed his whole idea of prions," Weiner said. "Despite the criticism by professionals in the field, he used his amazing courage, energy and creativity to push forward the frontiers of medicine."

On a human level, Weiner said Prusiner "is still very sensitive to the needs of others. During lunch one day, I mentioned that a member of my family was confronting a certain medical issue and within a few days, Stan did some research and found a physician who truly helped my family member. I didn't expect him to do this; he worked on the problem out of friendship and concern for me. I will always be grateful."

Prusiner, who credits his own father and mother with supporting him "by being loving and caring parents," passed along some wisdom for young Jewish scientists who aspire to a Nobel Prize.

"Work hard — and that's not just for Jewish ones," he said.