Dr. Michael Blank "So That All Mankind Can Benefit"

Cancer is the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in the developed world and accounts for more than 7.5 million deaths worldwide each year. When Dr. Michael Blank was seven-years old, his father succumbed to cancer, creating a void that became “the main driver in my life,” he says. His father’s death set him on a career path to cancer research and continues to impel his work in the hope that his efforts will contribute to new, more efficient cancer treatment.

Recently returned to Israel from the US after five years as a visiting postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Blank brings his quest to understand the origin of cancer cells to Bar-Ilan University as an assistant professor and senior lecturer at its School of Medicine in the Galilee. Specifically, he is interested in the molecular mechanisms that regulate cell growth and lead to tumorigenesis - the formation of tumors. At Bar-Ilan, his research will focus on continuing to study a tumor suppressor gene that he and his teammates discovered while he was at the NIH.

“It’s called Smurf2,” he says with a chuckle, well aware that, for most people, the name of this anticancer molecule conjures an image of tiny, blue fictional creatures of television fame. “Smurf2 stands for smad ubiquitin regulatory factor two,” a mouthful, he concedes. “It is a gene that inhibits the transformation of normal cells to cancer cells.” Interestingly, scientists already knew about Smurf2 and about certain of its biological functions in cells.

But, Dr. Blank discovered that the gene also acts as a powerful tumor suppressor that, when inactivated, clears the way for a spectrum of tumors to develop. “We ‘knocked out’ the Smurf2 gene in one group of mice and compared it to another group with regular genes. We found that different types of tumors began to grow in the organs and tissues of the first group. Some mice developed lymphomas, others mammary tumors, still others lung or liver cancers,” he says.

The discovery is significant and was recently featured on the cover of, and with a full length research article in, the prestigious biomedical journal "Nature Medicine". It was also highlighted in other respected biomedical journals and earned Dr. Blank the NIH Fellows Award for Research Excellence in 2010.

Born in Ukraine, the future cancer biologist began his training by studying toward an MD degree at Donetsk State Medical University - “in Ukraine, as in all of the former Soviet Union, you must complete medical school before you can deal with biomedical science,” he explains. But, in 1995 with one year left to complete the degree, he decided to immigrate to Israel. “Israel had a high level of education and research facilities. I wanted to continue my studies here,” he says.

At age 25 he decided to make Aliyah and came to Israel alone. With five years at Donetsk to his credit, the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University considered his medical studies in Ukraine the equivalent to earning a BSc degree in Israel and on this basis accepted him to its Master's program. After receiving his MSc degree, Dr. Blank stayed on at Sackler to earn a PhD degree and then, as a postdoctoral fellow, he joined the lab of Prof. Yosef Shiloh at Tel Aviv University, rising to become a senior scientist there. In 2007 he made the jump to the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, where he remained for five years.

Married with two children, Dr. Blank is happy to be back in Israel where “there is an outstanding academic environment and good support.” Also, he was excited to learn about Bar-Ilan’s new School of Medicine in the Galilee. The move back, he says, felt right. “I’m a seasoned scientist. I think my knowledge and experience will contribute to the scientific excellence of the University in general and the School in particular,” he says, noting that Bar-Ilan sweetened the pot by offering him new research facilities with the most advanced scientific equipment.

Returning to Israel made sense to him from a family perspective, as well. “Israel is a great place to raise kids, even despite the instability in the region. We live in Karmiel, a beautiful place where we’re all doing well,” he says, and on a sober note, adds: “We just hope for peace, because the ultimate goal of scientists like me who return from different countries is to make our work so that all mankind can benefit from it.”
For more on Dr. Blank click here.