"In retrospect it was an awful piece of work. But I remember that what propelled me through it was my examiner, Nathan Sharon of the Weizmann Institute," says Prof. Yehiel Zick of the Weizmann Institute's Molecular Cell Biology Department. "I was 17 when I presented my project to him, and I remember that presentation as the moment when I became truly fascinated by science."
Zick's high school research project was on hemoglobin (a protein inside mature red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs to the tissues) and the structure of the membrane. Today, at the Weizmann Institute, he studies the molecular basis of diabetes.
Together with fellow chemistry students (and current Weizmann professors) Haim Garty and Itamar Procaccia, he completed his undergraduate studies in chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1973, at the end of his third year of chemistry, he came to the Institute as a summer student.
He had initially planned to work in the laboratory of the late Prof. Aharon Katzir, Head of the Polymer Research Department. But shortly before the academic year was due to begin, Katzir was killed in a terrorist attack on Ben-Gurion Airport. Zick recalls Katzir's loss with great sadness. "I was very impressed with Prof. Katzir's research, especially his publications on thermodynamics. He symbolized to me the ultimate scientist," he says. "For me, there is no one like him."
After the Yom Kippur War, Zick joined the Institute's graduate program in biology. His research supervisor at the time was Alex Levitski, whom Zick remembers with both humor and admiration. "The students would work all day, until about eight or nine p.m. Then at night Alex would come in and say, 'OK, let's start,' and we would begin experiments that would last until one or two in the morning. He was a wonderful teacher, and I greatly admired him."
After his first year, Zick switched to the direct Ph.D. program, under the guidance of Prof. Shmuel Shaltiel of the Biological Regulation Department, whom Zick regards as an outstanding teacher and mentor who provided him with strong foundations as a scientist.
Zick's interest in diabetes began during his postdoctoral work, when he joined the diabetes branch of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). The team he joined made headlines for its breakthrough discovery of the enzymatic functions of the insulin receptor -- a discovery that opened up the diabetes field for the next 20 years, establishing insulin signal transduction pathways.
In 1984, Zick returned to the Weizmann Institute to continue his research on diabetes. Since 1989, he has headed a diabetes research group whose findings have provided new insights into the molecular basis of insulin resistance, a condition in which cells no longer respond to ordinary levels of insulin. Their discoveries may someday lead to new treatments for diabetes based on preventing this condition.
"Research on medication for patients with diabetes is lagging far behind the research and development of new drugs for cancer, as well as autoimmune and vascular diseases," says Zick. "There are less than 50 drugs available today to treat diabetics, and less than 10% of the drugs now being developed target this disease. The reason for this is that the molecular mechanism of this disease still hasn't been found, and without that knowledge, new drugs cannot be developed. Obviously, much more study in this direction is needed."