Meet Dr. Howard “Haim” Cedar, whose lifesaving discoveries have advanced the study of DNA

Dr. Howard “Haim” Cedar in his lab at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. For more than 40 years, his studies of DNA methylation have led to breakthrough discoveries about how bodily cells function.

An early pioneer in unlocking the mysteries of DNA, Dr. Howard “Haim” Cedar has devoted his life and career to studying how the cells within our bodies select the genetic information they need to function and ignore the rest of the genetic package.

A New York native who immigrated to Israel in 1973, Cedar received six United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation grants throughout his career. He credits BSF not only for helping to support his work, but also for helping him form meaningful and productive partnerships with U.S. scientists.

“While the amount of a BSF grant is not large, it has always been a very good way to initiate collaboration in the sciences between Israelis and Americans,” Cedar said.

For eight years, Cedar has been a member of BSF’s Board of Governors. In this role, he relishes the opportunity to help today’s young scientists on their own promising career paths.

“Many of the young people I see have already done postdoc work in the United States, but then they come back to Israel and in a sense, they have to get started with funding again,” Cedar said. “I like to help young Israelis with that process.”

Cedar does this at a time when BSF’s partnership with the U.S. National Science Foundation continues growing – as does Israel’s reputation as a science hub on the world stage.

“I think the perception of Israel has changed a lot over the years,” Cedar said. “It’s now known as a start-up nation, and a haven for technology and science.”

It’s a far cry from the place Cedar and his wife found when they moved to Israel in 1973. A graduate of both MIT and NYU, Cedar was strongly encouraged to stay and advance his career in the United States. After all, the U.S. was a known center of scientific activity, while Israel was still a new country that didn’t have a developed science infrastructure. But the Cedars wanted a life in Israel – and they have never been disappointed.

“Israel turned out to be a powerhouse of science, but with a different scientific personality than that of the U.S.,” Cedar said. “In the U.S., there is an emphasis on big science. Some of the best labs are big labs with a lot of postdocs and students and they tackle big problems, which you can only do with a lot of funding. In Israel, the labs are smaller and there is an emphasis on basic science, which changes the nature of the lab. It encourages younger students to be more involved, and they are allowed much more creative freedom.”

Cedar received his first BSF grant in 1975, just two years after immigrating to Israel. At the time, he was in his early 30s, and teaching at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He became a full professor at HU in 1981, and in 2008, he became HU’s first Edmond J. Safra Distinguished Professor.

He has focused on what is known as DNA methylation. (In a 2017 profile, called him the Methylation Maestro.) DNA is genetic information contained within every cell of our bodies. DNA methylation is a process by which methyl groups are added to the DNA molecule. Methylation can change the activity of a DNA segment without changing the sequence. Cells contain the same genetic information, or operating instructions, but they must be regulated according to their different functions. Cedar likens this process to an instruction booklet.

“Just like an instruction booklet can be annotated, underlined, highlighted, or crossed out, so can DNA,” Cedar said. “This is called DNA methylation and is a form of regulation that determines when a gene is turned on or off. The annotation doesn’t change the text, it allows the DNA to understand the text better.”  This ensures, as Cedar puts it, that “liver cells behave as liver cells and kidney cells as kidney cells.” When a gene methylates abnormally, it can generate cancer cells. If researchers can find a way to inhibit the abnormality, they could alleviate certain types of cancer. Methylation may also revolutionize the way diabetes is treated and may help understand the programming of stem cells.

Throughout his career, Cedar has made lifesaving discoveries. Employing methodologies developed in his lab, Cedar contributed to the invention of a simple blood test that helps diagnose many diseases, such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), as well as early signs of cancer.

Though he retired from teaching, he’s still very active at HU’s Cedar Laboratory in Jerusalem.

“It’s always interesting to me when we tackle interesting questions that have yet to be answered,” Cedar said.

Even with all the advances made in DNA methylation since his lab began focusing on the process more than 40 years ago, there is so much more left to be discovered.

“The implications are numerous for just about every aspect of biology,” Cedar said. “I am at a point in my life where I am still very excited about going to work in my lab.”