Pfizer puts funds behind team of Israeli all-star scientists to change traditional diabetes research

It’s become a given that Israel is a world leader in high tech and biotechnology – areas driven by doctors and scientists often with spirited visions of making the world a better place. So wouldn’t it make sense to bring …

It’s become a given that Israel is a world leader in high tech and biotechnology – areas driven by doctors and scientists often with spirited visions of making the world a better place. So wouldn’t it make sense to bring together some of the top Israeli minds in a given field to form a dream-team of physicians and scientists?

American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer sure thinks so, as they have put funds behind an Israeli effort called D-Cure (Diabetes Care in Israel) to do just that. Their mission? to prevent, cure and improve the treatment of diabetes.

Diabetes, affecting 18 million Americans, is a disease which confounds and frustrates doctors. While many plug away at research in secluded laboratories searching for the golden cure, the same plague that affects cancer research, affects diabetes: great research, great researchers, but not enough collaboration.

D-Cure’s mission has far created a research think-tank over the last two years to solve this problem and change the way doctors and scientists model modern research. With its focus on diabetes, the Israeli group believes its work will accelerate progress in the field of diabetes research around the world. If the plan works, the D-Cure model -which calls on top researchers from leading Israeli medical centers to collaborate – may very well be applied to curing other diseases and social issues such as cancer, obesity and world politics.

The recent validation of D-Cure’s lofty goals was a generous first year birthday present since its formal beginnings last June – Pfizer contributed $1.5 million to the cause in August. The announcement coincided with D-Cure’s third conference and second one in the name of Russell Berrie, the late American philanthropist whose namesake foundation generously donated millions to support diabetes research. The conference brought an estimated crowd of 400 last month to Israel, including diabetes researchers, physicians and businessmen, from countries such as the US, the UK, Germany and France.

The two-day event was packed with 35 lectures on diabetes research headed by people such as Barbara Corkey from Boston University and Derek LeRoith from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Pfizer’s David Fryburg presented research on drugs for obesity and diabetes.

Pfizer, the world’s largest research-based pharmaceuticals firm is best known for its erectile dysfunction therapy Viagra, its antidepressant Zoloft, and cholesterol-lowering Lipitor. Its funding will be supplied over a four year period to fund researchers in five different areas such as nanotechnology and microbiology, with one specific goal in mind: to count beta cells in a diabetes patients’ pancreas.

A beta cell is a jazzy scientific name for the cells in the pancreas which produce insulin. When someone has diabetes, for some unknown reason, the immune system programmed to protect the body from outside invaders, attacks the cells it should be keeping healthy.

“It is like an army attacking its own citizens,” joked Dr. Jesse Roth, anecdotally. If scientists can know what is happening in the pancreas before diabetes symptoms manifest, at the very least prevent they can help disease progression, he explains.

Roth, a veteran diabetes researcher and professor of medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, was once the scientific director at the National Institute of Health’s Maryland unit that led diabetes research. It has been his mission of more than four decades years to make American researchers and philanthropists aware to diabetes research and the need for a cure.

Today, US-based Roth is the President of the US Friends of D-Cure – the American team which aims to partner US researchers, drug companies and philanthropists with the Israeli project. Roth says that with the recent Pfizer contribution, D-Cure will be able to probe more deeply into what’s going on inside the diabetic’s pancreas and with that information understand the mechanism behind the disease.

The sponsored Pfizer project is just one of many that D-Cure is working on. Diabetes is characterized by high levels of blood glucose resulting from defects in insulin production, insulin action, or both. It can be associated with serious complications and premature death, but now people developing the appropriate therapies can control the disease and lower the risk of complications.

“The problem is that no one has been able to predict how much a person’s insulin-producing cells are left in the pancreas,” Roth told ISRAEL21c. “By the time symptoms set in, a person’s pancreas is damaged beyond repair, resulting in more than just lifelong injections, but putting a person at risk to secondary illnesses like stroke, heart disease, blindness and amputations.”

Strategies are going to be built around Pfizer’s generous grant, said Roth who is asking his team the question, “Can we get a mechanism to measure the number of cells, at any moment, capable of insulin secretion?”

Itamar Raz, president of D-Cure and of the Israel Diabetes Association, and head of the Diabetes Center at Hadassah University, knows what kinds of capabilities Israeli researchers have. He believes that research at Israeli centers is comparable to research in the US, but in Israel he says, researchers operate on an astounding fraction of a US center’s budget.

Raz thinks that D-Cure, now with about $8 million in research money, has not only the clout, but the funding to turn Israel into one of the world’s leading countries for the treatment and cure of diabetes. Besides working with the country’s best in the field, an important part of the D-Cure manifesto is to recruit young researchers into the fold and in some cases to send them to the US on scientific missions.

With a very young attitude, the deal between D-Cure and Pfizer was brokered by Jonathon Sohnis, the acting chair of D-Cure who was dressed casually in sandals and a t-shirt at the conference, where most were in ties and jackets. Sohnis believes through imaging technology, D-Cure will be able to understand what’s going on in the pancreas.

“Pfizer has interest in pursuing therapies which address the complications in diabetes. We want to develop a tool to see if their drugs are effective,” he told ISRAEL21c.

“Last year D-Cure presented a multi-discipline idea on how to analyze beta cells in a non-invasive way and Pfizer was willing to listen,” explained Sohnis, who is an an electronic engineer by trade and CEO for Altronix, an American-based electronics company. He said that as far as he knows D-Cure has built the first multi-project collaboration of its kind.

When asked, he thinks it is possible that D-Cure’s model could be applied to other diseases like cancer or non-related social issues like solving world peace. Rather than elaborating, he says diplomatically, “I am happy to be doing something that can impact the world.. and yes, I think we have a chance to succeed.”

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About Karin Kloosterman

Karin Kloosterman lives in Jaffa, Israel. She is a journalist, writer and blogger who focuses on the environment and clean technology from Israel and the Middle East. Published in hundreds of newspapers around the world, Karin also writes for the Huffington Post and Green Prophet.