Past, Present & Future Perfect


Prof. Ephraim Katzir. One big family


In May 1948, a young scientist named Dr. Ephraim Katzir arrived at the gates of the Weizmann Institute. Interface recently asked Katzir to articulate how he views the Institute's present and future from a personal, 50-year perspective.

Children on summer vacation are, no doubt, the most joyful beings on earth, doing nothing save that which gives them pleasure.

Prof. Ephraim Katzir, for instance, smilingly remembers one childhood summer in Jerusalem: "My brother Aharon and I found a book that contained 1,000 math problems, on the subject of planimetry, and we made up our minds to solve them on our own." Another childhood memory: "We loved chemistry lessons. The chemistry teacher at the Gymnasium of Rehavia was somewhat absent-minded and almost every experiment would terminate in a small explosion or fire. Eager to save our lives, we would take advantage of the fact that the class was on the ground floor and would jump out of the windows to our freedom."

Children who solve math problems for fun grow up and find themselves, by nature, in the university. But in the 1930s, an immense struggle to found the State of Israel was in its critical stages. The brothers Aharon and Ephraim Katchalsky (Katzir) had to split their time between scientific and underground activities.

The young Ephraim Katzir began his military career as a messenger boy, conveying information between Haganah (the main underground movement) officers. Later on, he advanced to the position of commanding officer of an infantry troop. He became aware of a different aspect of chemistry's crucial importance as he learned about explosive materials. During that period, he received an invitation from Ernst Bergmann, Scientific Director of what was then called the Sieff Institute, to come join a new research team which had emerged from within the orange groves of Rehovot. On the way to Rehovot, Katzir paid a visit to Professor Hermann Mark of Brooklyn, chairman of the scientific committee which planned the Weizmann Institute. Upon his return to Israel in 1948, he was kept busy in military R&D, in what was to become the science force of a burgeoning Israel.

Only after working to these ends did he return to his basic research, which, at a later date, would gain him world fame. The focus of his research was proteins, natural polymers, which are the building blocks of all animals and plants. Proteins have a highly complex structure which includes long, twisted chains containing sequences of up to 20 different amino acids. To facilitate the study of proteins' properties, Professor Katzir developed simple synthetic models, containing just one or two different amino acids. These models, polyamino acids, which were developed in the 1950s and continued to be used through the 60s and 70s, were an important tool in determining the spatial structure of protein molecules and contributed to the cracking of the genetic code.

This understanding of the polyamino acid properties, and their immunological properties in particular, led, among other things, to Weizmann scientists' development of Copaxone (Copolymer 1). This drug is now used world­ wide to treat people suffering from multiple sclerosis.

In another study, Professor Katzir developed a method of binding enzymes to a variety of surfaces and molecules. The enzymes catalyze (speed up) many different chemical processes and their bonding qualities enable them to be reused time and again. The enzyme-adsorbing techniques form the basis of a tremendous variety of processes in the food and drug industry.

"The Institute was small then," recalls Professor Katzir. "You knew everyone. Among us was a genuine feeling of closeness and true friendship. We lived, worked and felt as sons and daughters in one family, the Institute family. Once, when the Institute's administrator, Meyer Weisgal, was planning a trip out of the country to raise money, he invited us all to his office and said: 'I am going to raise money for you. In order to do that, it is essential that I make impressive promises of many kinds and forms. And when I return, you will have to make all of these promises come true.'

"Standing now at a distance of fifty years, I can clearly see that we did carry out most of our hopes and aspirations. As for the future, I listen to the hopes and ideals of our young scientists, and I am sure that they too will fulfill their promises and will enjoy the satisfaction obtained from their accomplishments, just as we did."