Current and former BSF grantees continue making advances

A medical team member at the Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, Israel, handling a coronavirus test sample.

With the coronavirus pandemic continuing its dangerous path around the world, scientists in Israel and in the United States continue making promising strides in many key areas.

They do so under trying circumstances. The United States has the highest COVID-19 death toll of any country in the world. Israel – after relative early success controlling the virus – has seen a troubling increase in cases this summer.

Prof. Abraham (Avi) Israeli, who chairs the BSF Board of Governors, is also the Chief Scientist for Israel’s Ministry of Health. Israeli said Israel can take pride in its scientific advances on several fronts.

Here are just a few examples, involving current or former BSF grantees.

Studying the spread 

One project, which has received funding through BSF’s partnership with the (United States) National Science Foundation, focuses on one of COVID-19’s biggest mysteries – how it spreads.

Prof. Shlomo Havlin of Bar Ilan University and Prof. Lazaros Gallos of Rutgers University are looking at various factors that contribute to spreading COVID-19, including human movement, social interactions, and climate.

Using advanced techniques from statistical physics and network science, Havlin, Gallos and their respective teams are collaborating to study and model the geographical spreading and the patterns created by the virus, taking advantage of high-resolution data. Given that nations and regions face different government restrictions, as well as varying weather patterns, this research effort will observe how these factors may correlate with spreading.

Preliminary results indicate that the virus is more effective – in other words, people are more likely to catch it – at low temperatures around 10 degrees Celsius (or 50 degrees Fahrenheit.)  The team is now constructing appropriate computational models that will attempt to explain these patterns in terms of quarantine measures, the timing of such measures, and environmental conditions.

“Such an understanding could assess the efficiency of quarantine measures implemented around the world, and also identify the effects of temperature and humidity,” Havlin said.  “The goal of the project is that these mathematical and computational tools should be readily available at the next possible outbreak wave and enable the immediate analysis and understanding of epidemiological data. The outcome of this research has the potential of providing early detection of geographical areas at high risk, thus informing the decisions of policymakers.”

This is the 10th BSF grant for Havlin, who is also a past winner of the coveted Israel Prize for Physics. It is the second BSF grant he has shared with Gallos.

“I am grateful to BSF and NSF for the opportunity to leverage my research through close collaboration with the Bar-Ilan group of Shlomo Havlin,” Gallos said. “There is a great added value in supporting research teams that transcend country boundaries, especially for younger researchers who can experience the benefits of the universal character of research. This is particularly important for research problems of an urgent character and it is great that the NSF-BSF program promptly responded to support COVID-19 related research.”

Developing, quicker, more accurate testing  

Two BSF grantees, Prof. Motti Gerlic and Prof. Ariel Munitz, both members of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, have joined forces to develop one of the world’s most efficient and accurate coronavirus antibody tests.

Capable of identifying all three key coronavirus antibodies with up to 99 percent accuracy, their pioneering serological test was featured recently in the Times of Israel. The test could help determine the extent of virus spread, thus helping governments make better policy and protecting public health in the process.

During the research, carried out in cooperation with Hasharon Hospital in Petah Tikva, the team discovered that patients who became seriously ill from the virus developed antibodies more rapidly at an early stage of their infection than did those who had light symptoms. This runs contrary to the earlier idea that those who became seriously ill were unable to develop antibodies. Munitz said that patients suffered serious symptoms because they developed antibodies rapidly.

“We understand this as apparently the result of a higher activation of the immune system,” Munitz said. “It is important to remember that over-activation of the immune system is responsible in many cases for the serious symptoms, including incidences of death, and the speed of antibody generation among seriously ill patients is likely to bear witness to that.”

Gerlic has an active BSF grant studying necroptosis in asthma with U.S. partner Dr. Ben Croker from the University of San Diego. Munitz just received his fourth BSF grant with long-time research partner Prof. Marc Rothenberg from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Diving into pool testing

Former BSF grantee Prof. Angel Porgador of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is part of a team of Israeli scientists who have pioneered a new coronavirus test designed for a process called pool testing, which involves testing samples from pools – or groups – of people at once.

The Israeli method is designed to only require one round of testing — a crucial savings in time, laboratory workflow and supplies. It accomplishes that by building on a combinatorial algorithm developed a decade ago to speed the detection of rare genetic mutations.

The Israeli government plans to roll out the new method in 12 labs across the country this fall. The test is already attracting interest, and the team was recently featured in the New York Times.

Porgador has received five BSF grants, most recently in 2019.

Connections to trauma

Einat Levy-Gigi of Bar Ilan University and George Bonanno of Columbia University are testing the psychological effects of COVID-19, while comparing it to other conditions of repeated trauma. The goal is to test the moderating role of cognitive and emotional flexibility. Cognitive flexibility relates to a person’s ability to cope during particular situations. For example, when individuals are better able to shift their thinking from situation to situation, they tend to focus less on stressors within these situations.

In the first round of testing, Levy-Gigi and Bonanno evaluated 1,570 individuals in the US and 4,505 individuals in Israel. The results revealed that in individuals with low cognitive flexibility, there is a significant positive correlation between levels of traumatic exposure and symptoms of state anxiety (a transitory emotional state involving apprehension, nervousness and related symptoms.) Moreover, these individuals show reduced ability to cope with the behavioral aspects of COVID-19.

“The results may suggest that high cognitive flexibility decreases the deleterious effects of the current crisis,” Levy-Gigi said.

The team has started a second round of assessment, which also includes evaluation of PTSD symptoms. So far, they have collected data from 574 individuals in Israel. They are now analyzing the results, looking at whether cognitive flexibility at the beginning of the crisis predicts current coping abilities and clinical symptoms. The participants will be assessed again around summer, 2021.

Levy-Gigi and Bonanno have received two BSF grants, most recently in 2015.

COVID-19 effects on kidneys

Benjamin Freedman of the University of Washington is part of a team conducting early experiments to understand how COVID-19 affects the kidneys. To that effect, they are growing human kidney organoids from pluripotent stem cells and treating these with live viruses in a high-security lab. Organoids with specific mutations that occur in the human population, which may make certain people more susceptible, are being studied and compared to organoids without these mutations.

These experiments will be helpful to understand the susceptibilities of different individuals and different types of cells, both for understanding the disease as well as for the possibility of regenerative grafts for the kidneys. This relates to an ongoing study between Freedman’s lab and that of Benjamin Dekel at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel. That project involves testing the potential of kidney organoid cultures for the development of therapies, including patient-specific kidney replacement tissue grown from their own bodies. Freedman received a BSF grant in 2017.