Nobel-winning discovery of critical cell function
The 2004 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Profs. Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover (Technion), together with Prof. Irwin Rose (UC Irvine), for their joint discovery of the ubiquitin system for protein degradation, which regulates the breakdown of proteins governing almost all major functions of the cell.
The cooperation between the Israeli and American research groups was made possible by continuous support by the BSF for some 15 years; Prof Hershko himself received uninterrupted BSF support for a period of 24 years.
These breakthroughs have already produced a potentially life-saving drug: in 2003 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new drug called Velcade, an injection-based treatment for multiple myeloma cancer of the bone marrow, that affects more than 15,000 Americans each year. More widespread applications are now anticipated for such diseases as asthma, arthritis, multiple sclerosis as well as degenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
These discoveries also earned Profs. Ciechanover and Hershko the prestigious Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (the “American Nobel”) in 2000.
Pioneering Advances in Computer Science and Robotics
BSF-supported research in computer science has spurred pioneering advances in computational geometry, which lies at the heart of diverse areas such as robotics and manufacturing, computer vision, object and pattern recognition, computer graphics, simulation and animation, medical imaging, drug design and more. Collaboration between Prof. Micha Sharir (Tel Aviv University), Prof. Janos Pach (NYU), Prof. Pankaj Agarwal (Duke University) and Prof. Boris Aronov (Polytechnic University) has reshaped many aspects of this important field of geometry. The group’s work on Motion Planning in Robotics serves as a good example for the interaction between computational geometry and an important application area. The problem of planning collision-free motion of a robot system in a workspace cluttered with obstacles is a central problem in robotics. Prof. Sharir’s pioneering work has led to a great deal of additional research with his American collaborators, and by many other researchers – resulting in the design of practical systems that overcome this problem.
The BSF played a key role in the worldwide use of PET (Positron Emitting Tomography) to identify functional disorders, indicating cancer. The development of this basic oncological diagnostic tool and multibillion-dollar business was almost abandoned, due to a lack of abundant short-lived isotopes F or C, required for the imaging. Supported by the BSF, Prof. Shlomo Rozen (Tel Aviv University) and Prof. Michael Welch (Washington University) synthesized Acetyl Hypoflurite, which was immediately adopted by the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and by industry. It became the single most important source of F for 15 years and secured the development of the method until other sources were discovered.
Stem Cell Therapy for Reversing Brain Defects
BSF-supported collaborative research between Prof. Joseph Yanai (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Prof. Theodore Slotkin (Duke) has succeeded in reversing brain birth defects in animal models, using stem cells to replace defective brain cells. Neural and behavioral birth defects, such as learning disabilities, are particularly difficult to treat because the prenatal teratogen – the substances that cause the abnormalities, act diffusely in the fetal brain, resulting in multiple defects. Profs. Yanai and Sorkin’s teams were able to overcome this obstacle in laboratory tests with mice by using mouse embryonic neural stem cells. These cells migrate in the brain, search for the deficiency that caused the defect, and then differentiate into becoming the cells needed to repair the damage. The scientists are now developing procedures for the least invasive method for administering the neural stem cells, which is probably via blood vessels, thus making the therapy practical and clinically feasible.
Searching for life outside our solar system
Highly sophisticated infrared optical fibers are being developed and fabricated jointly by research teams headed by Prof. Avraham Katzir (Tel Aviv University) and Prof. Amnon Yariv (California Institute of Technology), with BSF support. These fibers are to be used by NASA in its search of habitable extra-solar planets. The effort to identify habitable planets concentrates on the identification of a pair of stars similar to the earth and the sun and the detection of oxygen, water, and carbon dioxide. Each of these has a characteristic “color” in the infrared, invisible to the human eye, but which can be detected by sensitive infrared equipment. Both NASA and the European Space Agency have programs aimed at identifying the presence of life outside our solar system, and BSF-supported research is likely to play a key role in this effort.
For 15 years, the BSF supported cooperation between Prof. Ilana Gozes (Tel Aviv University) and Dr. Douglas Brenneman (NIH), who jointly studied brain-specific molecules that are related to loss of memory, decreased learning ability and inhibition of sexual function. These studies resulted in the synthesis of novel neuropeptides-based drugs, including for cancer therapy, the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease, and other neurodegenerative conditions. Allon Therapeutics, a start-up company based on these discoveries, is now performing clinical studies on the first of these potential new drugs.
Superior Solid Lubricants
An outstanding breakthrough in the field of material science, resulting from BSF- sponsored collaboration, was the discovery of inorganic nanotubes and fullerene-like nanoparticles, which paved the way to the development of superior solid lubricants with important and large-scale commercial applications in the automotive, machining, aerospace, electronics, medical, and numerous other industries. This research, conducted by Prof. Reshef Tenne, Prof. D.J. Srolovitz and Dr. Yishai Feldman (Weizmann), together with Dr. Edel Wasserman (DuPont Experimental Station, Delaware), is expected to lead in the future also to the fabrication of ultra-strong nanocomposites, and a host of other applications. It also led to the establishment of a new paradigm in the chemistry of nanomaterials and to the birth of an entirely new field of inorganic chemistry – the science and technology of hollow-closed structures.
Protection against chemical warfare and insecticide poisoning
With BSF support, Prof. Hermona Soreq (Hebrew University) and Prof. James Patrick (Baylor College of Medicine) have pioneered diverse molecular medicine approaches for exploring the mechanism underlying stress-associated diseases, and have developed innovative strategies for alleviating the consequences of traumatic experiences or chemical stresses. Based on these discoveries, Pharmathene Inc., a U.S.-based start-up company, produces Cholinesterase proteins in goats, which hold promise to become novel protection agents against chemical warfare, insecticide poisoning and for treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease. Prof. Soreq’s research has also led to the development of Monarsen, an FDA-approved orphan drug for the treatment of the autoimmune disease Myasthenia Gravis. It is presently in phase II of clinical studies, and is the focus of a current BSF grant to Prof. Soreq and Prof. Alan Gewirtz (University of Pennsylvania).
Anti-Cancer Drug Development
BSF-supported collaboration between Profs. Israel Vlodavsky (Technion) and Ram Sasisekharan (MIT) has led to important discoveries on heparanase, a unique human enzyme playing a key role in cancer progression. Their clinical observations demonstrate a highly significant correlation between enhanced heparanase expression, metastatic potential, tumor vascularity and reduced postoperative survival of cancer patients. These observations clearly indicate that this enzyme is a most promising target for anti- cancer drug development. In addition, a newly developed, highly sensitive quantitative (ELISA) method revealed elevated levels of heparanase in saliva, urine and plasma of cancer patients, supporting the relevance of heparanase as a promising tumor marker as well.