The 2014 Blumberg (previously Elkeles) Prize for Outstanding Scientist in Medical Research was awarded recently to Prof. Ohad Birk, head of the Morris Kahn Laboratory of Human Genetics at the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev at BGU. Birk is also the the director of the Naomi Fisher Bartnoff Genetics Counseling Unit under the auspices of the Institute of Human Genetics at Soroka University Medical Center. Past recipients of the prize include Nobel Laureate Prof. Aaron Ciechanover and several Israel Prize Laureates. Past recipients from BGU include: Profs. Shimon Glick, Shraga Segal, Ron Dagan and Roni Apte.
Prof. Birk and his team have deciphered the molecular basis of nearly 30 severe human diseases, including some of the most common hereditary diseases in Bedouins and in Sephardic Jews. Prof. Birk has also implemented the research findings in routine screening tests for prevention of the diseases discovered, with proven success. There has been a 30% reduction in infant mortality in the Bedouin community within the past few years. Some of the diseases discovered are common in the Arab world, with implications for large communities throughout the Middle East. His research has major implications for Jews as well: PCCA (Progressive Cerebello Cerebral Atrophy) and PCCA2, deciphered in Prof. Birk’s lab, are the two most common severe hereditary diseases in Sephardic Jews. Free carrier tests for PCCA are now routine for Jews of North African and Iraqi ancestry, similar to Tay Sachs for Ashkenazi Jews.
Prof. Birk completed his medical studies at Tel Aviv University, his residency in pediatrics at Sheba Medical Center, Ph.D. at the Weizmann Institute of Science and post-doctoral training and fellowship in clinical human genetics at the NIH. As of 2001, he heads the Morris Kahn Laboratory at the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev at BGU and the Institute of Human Genetics at Soroka University Medical Center.
This is the 26th year of the KKL Blumberg /Elkeles Prize for Outstanding Scientists in Medical Research. The 2014 prize was awarded to Prof. Birk for his “outstanding contribution in deciphering hereditary diseases.” The fund was set up through the generosity of Alice and the late Otto Blumberg, to commemorate Dr. Otto Blumberg, in order to promote excellence in medical research in Israel. In previous years, the prize was funded through the generosity of the late Dr. Ludwig Elkeles, a longtime benefactor of KKL.