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Feature Profile

The gene detective

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 13 March 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:586
  1. Rebecca Coombes, freelance journalist
  1. 1London
  1. rcoombes{at}

Howard Cedar got sucked into genetics research when it was still in its infancy. He talks to Rebecca Coombes about the breathtaking progress in cancer diagnosis and treatment and current barriers to further advances

Despite his emigration to Israel more than 30 years ago, Howard Cedar’s voice betrays his New York roots. A senior figure in genetics research, the Hebrew University professor is well placed to give a snapshot of current progress in this complex field, especially its application to cancer. He was an early pioneer in molecular biology, which “started a new era in medicine,” he says. Instead of looking just at symptoms, molecular biology delves into the functions of the body and discovers the basis of disease.

Learning how genes are regulated has been long, slow work, and only now, after 25 years, is Cedar seeing the practical application of what he has been studying. Today, he talks about the “unbelievable” pace of genetic research. He is absolutely clear about the direction of travel for basic research to uncover the causes of disease but is frank about the “road blocks” in the way.

Cedar got his introduction to genetics during his Vietnam War draft in the early 1970s. Against that volatile backdrop, Cedar, fresh out of medical school, was “fortunate” to be sent to the National Institutes of Health in Washington, where exploration into DNA and genes was in its infancy. “I got introduced to the study of chromatin, understanding how DNA is packaged in the nucleus. That set the stage for the rest of my career. I saw how important it was in terms of biology.”

Cedar and his young family arrived in Israel in 1973 – just two months before the Yom Kippur war broke out. “It was very traumatic. Mostly like everyone else in Israel …

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