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‘Arab Nobel Prize’ for genetics

‘Arab Nobel Prize’ for genetics ‘Arab Nobel Prize’ for genetics

Photographer:Fotograaf: Archive Radboud UMC

MAASTRICHT. Professors Han Brunner and Joris Veltman have won the King Faisal Prize in the category of Medicine, referred to by some as the ‘Arab Nobel Prize’. The researchers, who play a leading role in clinical genetics, will travel to Saudi Arabia to receive the prize from the king in March.

The King Faisal Prize was awarded for the first time in 1979. During the ceremony in Riyadh last year, the organisation revealed that 26 of the awardees were to later receive the Nobel Prize. Medicine is one of the five categories, in addition to Science, Service to Islam, Islamic studies, and Arabic Language and Literature.
Han Brunner (1956, Rotterdam) and Joris Veltman (1971, Heerlen) are the first Dutch citizens to receive the prize – a total of 200 thousand dollars. The researchers are praised for their “clinical application of next-generation genetics”.  Both are associated with the universities of Maastricht and Nijmegen and use next-generation sequencing. These are techniques that can be used to identify the entire genetic code of a human being. “We are leaders when it comes to the use of genetic information in health care,” was Veltman’s reaction. In 2010, they published a pioneering study on the causes of mental disabilities. Many children who are born with a mental disability, have not inherited the defect from their parents. The gene is fine in both parents, while the children suffer from a mutation in their DNA.
The researchers are proud. Veltman: “I saw an impressive list of previous winners on the website, respected researchers, also from our own field. Of course I have also been thinking about the recent negative news on Saudi Arabia. But, just like Han, I have ascertained that it is a real science prize that is awarded by a jury consisting of international scientists.”
Another remarkable fact is that the jury takes little notice of the views of the Saudi regime. The prize has also been awarded to Jewish researchers. Ronald Levy, a Jewish researcher at Stanford University, was a prizewinner in 2009. In an interview from that time in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the oncologist spoke of his surprise; he had never expected to be nominated, let alone win. Together with his family (his wife is an Israeli and one of his daughters was born in Israel) he was given a warm welcome at the ceremony in Saudi Arabia. However, the organisers of the King Faisal prize did leave out a small part of Levy’s biography on its website, said Haaretz: the line showing his post-doctoral work at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot had been deleted.

Wendy Degens



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