Not too many rabbis spend their day trying to cure cancer. Fewer still own three dogs and a killer fish named Shalom on the side. But Rabbi Dr. Robert Shorr does and sees no inherent conflict or tension between his various activities.
The son of a well-regarded rocket scientist who once collaborated with former Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun, Shorr, 55, is the CEO of Cornerstone Pharmaceuticals, which is currently conducting clinical trials of CPI-613, a drug designed to kill cancer cells by starving them of the glucose they need to survive.
“It’s important to promise little and deliver much,” Shorr told The Jewish Press, but so far, he said, the trial results are encouraging.
With his white beard and long black coat, Shorr doesn’t fit most people’s mental image of a 21st-century scientist. Indeed, Shorr said he often hears people argue that “you can’t be in the world and look like that.” His reply? “Well, obviously I am in the world, and I look how I look.”
Shorr, however, did not always sport a rabbinic appearance. Brought up in a relatively secular Jewish home, Shorr moved toward ritual observance slowly, beginning his journey as a young boy of five.
“We were living in Sacramento, California at the time,” Shorr recalls, “and belonged to a Conservative Temple. One Shabbos my father walked me over to the aron hakodesh – the shul was empty at this time – took my hand and put it on the sefer Torah. I looked up and my father was crying, and he said to me, ‘Rob, when I’m gone, look for me here because this is the home of the Jewish people. And when you look here you will also find yourself.’ I’d never seen my father cry before.”
As Shorr grew older, he started reading the Bible during services. “I would read ‘Do this’ and ‘Don’t do that,’ and we didn’t do any of it. And I said to myself, ‘If I’m a Jew and this is my job, then I have to do my job honestly.’ ” By the time he was bar mitzvah, Shorr had resolved to become observant.
Although Shorr didn’t immediately carry out his resolution, he never forgot it. Many years later, in 1978, as a graduate student at the University of London – where he would later receive his doctorate in biochemistry – Shorr was returning home from eating a Friday night restaurant dinner with his wife when he saw Shabbos candles burning in a house in the distance. He was transfixed.
“Both of us saw this amazing glow,” Shorr recalled, “that seemed to be shooting through the roof of the house . We looked at each other and said, ‘You know, this is what we want to build.’ So we resolved that when we would return to the United States, we would learn what it meant to be Jews.”
A few years later, the Shorrs moved to Wayne, Pennsylvania where they encountered Project SEED, a Torah Umesorah project geared toward non-observant Jews. They subsequently came under the influence of Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia and Rabbi Abraham Levene of the Lower Merion Synagogue. Soon, Shorr was spending several hours every day studying Torah.
“I got so excited about learning,” Shorr said, “that I wanted to quit my job and go learn. So I asked Rabbi Levene and Rabbi Kamenetzky, but they both told me ‘no’ – that my job is to develop medicine and bring healing to the world.”
Shorr believes his increased Torah knowledge has helped his medical research. “The most classic guide to healing,” Shorr said, “is the asher yatzar brachah. It states that if something [in the body] is closed that should be open or open that should be closed, there’s illness. How do you fix it? Open what should be open and close what should be closed. No matter how you think about it, at one level or another, that’s how every drug works.”
His scientific knowledge has also aided his Torah study, he said. “I’ll never forget, we were learning a Gemara about whether or not a person can go out on Shabbos with a silver coin in his shoe for healing purposes. The guys in the shiur asked me at the time, ‘Rob, why would anyone want to put a silver coin in his shoe?’ Well, the answer is that silver when combined with sweat and in the atmosphere will form silver nitrate. Silver nitrates are among the most powerful antibiotics in existence.”
Shorr tires of hearing about conflicts between Torah and science. “Anybody trying to position science against the Torah lacks understanding of both . People look to science as a substitute for religion, but science has never and will never be able to do that. They do different things.”
Shorr continues pursuing both. He recently received his semicha, and over the years has finished Shas several times. Concurrently, Shorr has also authored over 150 scientific articles and possesses over 200 issued or pending patents.
His latest cancer-related research, however, may prove to be his most important. Shorr doesn’t want to promise anything, but he said CPI-613 could potentially help patients with pancreatic, lung, colon, or breast cancer. “Really everything is in the hand of heaven,” he said.
Depending on what the clinical trials show, Shorr said, the drug could be on the market in as little as three years.