Zelig Eshhar


Zelig Eshhar, PhD

Weizmann Institute of Science and the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center

2021 Inductee


Zelig Eshhar was born in Petah Tikva in 1941, the eldest son of Yaakov and Sarah Lipke, both originally from Poland. He grew up in Rehovot, where his two brothers and sister were born. He attended "Beit Chinuch" Elementary School and "Meuchad" High School in Rehovot. After graduation, he enlisted in the army and joined the Nahal Brigade in Kibbutz Yad Mordechai. After finishing his service, he stayed on the kibbutz for another year, where he was exposed to the wonders of nature and scientific research for the first time while working with bees. His boundless curiosity in the field led to his decision, at age 22, to study biology. His request to study at the agricultural faculty in Rehovot was denied by the kibbutz, and so he left the kibbutz and signed up for biology classes at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He went on to complete an undergraduate degree in biology and a MSc. in biochemistry. During his studies, the Six Day War broke out, and he fought with the Nahal brigade, parachuting in the Bakaa and Ramat HaGolan regions. He also met Naomi Friedlander during his studies, and after they married, he "Hebretized" his last name to Eshhar. The couple had twins, Nir and Sharon, followed by another daughter, Meirav. Today Eshhar has six grandchildren.
In 1969, Eshhar began his doctoral studies at the Weizmann Institute of Science. Under the tutelage of Israel Prize winner Prof. Michael Sela and Prof. David Givol, the young Eshhar studied ways to stop donor organ rejection using isolation, and characterized specific antigens on lymphocytes and prepared sera against them. Upon finishing his studies, Dr. Eshhar applied for a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School in the United States, in the immunology department led by Prof. Baruch Benasraf (who later won the Nobel Prize), in David Katz's lab. During this period of specialization, Eshhar continued to study the immune system: conducting experiments to better understand the molecular mechanisms of lymphocytic activation that cause tissue rejection, and searching for ways to avoid this effect.
During his last year at Harvard, Prof. Cesar Milstein and Prof. George Keller from Cambridge University announced one of the largest breakthroughs in the history of scientific research and medical treatment (for which they later received the Nobel Prize): the development of a method for creating monoclonal antibodies in the laboratory. Dr. Eshhar, who immediately recognized the enormous potential of this technology, flew to Prof. Keller's lab at the Immunology Institute of Basel to learn the method, "import" it to Israel, and to teach it to the next generation in seminars and international courses (see attached). In 1976, he returned to Israel and joined the academic staff at the Weizmann Institute as the head of a research group in the chemical immunology department (which eventually became the immunology department). In 1982, he was awarded professorship and went to California for a sabbatical at the DNAX Institute for Molecular Biology, where, along with Prof. Mark Davis, he began to focus on the central topic of his career – the genetic engineering of T cells. While developing genetically engineered T cells, Prof. Eshhar also worked to create unique antibodies specifically for allergies. As an expert in monoclonal antibodies, Prof. Eshhar was invited to teach in developing countries and to advise many biotech companies. In the beginning of the 1990's, he took another sabbatical, this time to the National Institute of Cancer in Maryland, USA. There, in the lab of Prof. Steven Rosenberg, he set the groundwork for the clinical application of the T-Bodies technology, an anti-cancer approach which he developed at the Weizmann Institute in 1989. Several years later, Prof. Rosenberg performed the first clinical experiments on the basis of Prof. Eshhar's advancements.
Throughout the years, Prof. Eshhar studied various aspects of the immune system, and his research led to discoveries in important processes at the core of the system's functioning, as well as to a wealth of applications based on the discoveries made by Eshhar and his colleagues. Among Prof. Eshhar's interests are immunological identification mechanisms and differentiating between own and foreign molecules, allergic reactions, immunological aspects of cancerous tumors, developing catalyst antibodies, and developing targeted treatments for cancer and inflammatory diseases using genetically engineered lymphocytes.
In the eighth decade of his life, Prof. Eshhar has not slowed down, and recently he was appointed head of immunology research at the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv (Ichilov), in addition to continuing his work in the immunology department of the Weizmann Institute. His goal is to apply the treatment methods he has developed throughout the years to patients.