Dr. Shany Blum (with his wife Rinat): The drugs we’re developing will help diabetics with Haptoglobin 2-2 all over the world.Shany Blum didn’t think he had much of a chance of winning the prestigious American College of Cardiology Young Investigator Award 2006 when he sent in his application.
But the 30-year-old Israeli doctor – who was part of a team that has developed a blood test for diabetic patients to assess their relative risk of future complications from the disease – underestimated his chances.
Diabetes is the fifth deadliest disease in the US, and according to the American Diabetes Association, 20.8 million Americans are affected by the disease.
“When I sent in my application I didn’t really hope for anything as I knew no Israeli had ever been in the competition,” says an elated Blum, who beat out thousands of other medical researchers from across the globe for the honor. “I was very excited to be nominated as one of the finalists, and I was a little shocked when I won.”
Blum, who is currently completing his PhD at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, is a licensed general medical practitioner and a principal investigator at the Rappaport Faculty of Medicine in Haifa.
Working under the guidance of Prof. Andrew P. Levy, Blum and his fellow Rappaport researchers identified the Haptoglobin 2-2 phenotype as a genetic marker that reveals susceptibility to diabetic vascular diseases. In several retrospective studies, they found that diabetic patients who are Haptoglobin 2-2 are at a higher risk of having cardiovascular complications than those who are Haptoglobin 1-1 or Haptoglobin 2-1.
The presentation that won Blum the award focused on how the Haptoglobin genotype determines myocardial infarct size in diabetic mice.
As a result of the research, the Rappaport researchers have patented a blood test that enables diabetics to find out their Haptoglobin phenotype. Blum says until recently Israel was the only place in the world to carry out such a test. He notes that an American lab recently signed an agreement to conduct the test in the US, but says that the number of tests performed there is limited.
Levy, Blum and the Rappaport team believe that every diabetic around the globe should find out his Haptoglobin type, and encourage diabetic patients to do the test.
Blum’s own grandmother suffers from diabetes. Helping others deal with the disease spurs him to succeed in his field of study. But he says the main impetus for his research is a deep interest in cardiology.
Finding Haptoglobin 2-2 as the genetic marker was key. “By knowing the mechanism, we can now research and look for the medication to treat these patients,” Blum told ISRAEL21c.
In fact, the Technion Israel Institute of Technology is now collaborating with Clalit Medical Services (the biggest HMO in Israel) in a study called I CARE. The 3,500 patients, who are still being enrolled, will partake in a prospective, double blind, randomized and placebo controlled clinical study and will be divided into two groups: one receiving 400 IU of Vitamin E per day and the other receiving a matching placebo.
The purpose of the study, says Blum, is to determine whether Vitamin E treatment to diabetic patients, who carry the Haptoglobin 2-2 phenotype, prevents cardiovascular complications such as acute MI and Stroke.
“This will be the first cohort in Israel… and this cohort will be the basis for other prospective studies. The future is filled with many studies and we hope we’ll be successful with them,” says Blum, who adds that a US drug company is currently performing early stage clinical studies with a new medicine for diabetes based on Blum’s research.
“The drugs we’re developing will help diabetics with Haptoglobin 2-2 all over the world. We hope in the next year or two we can come out with guidelines on how to treat these patients.”
Blum says that while he might have been considered a rarity among American
College of Cardiology fellows at their 55th Annual Scientific Session (in being the only Israeli to ever win one of their prestigious awards), there’s nothing extraordinary about him when it comes to medical researchers in Israel.
“I don’t think I’m very unique from other researchers in Israel. We have many good researchers here,” says the married father of one. In addition to Blum’s achievement, Associate Professor Lior Gepstein of the Technion also received an award at the ACC meeting in mid-March for his significant contribution to clinical and basic science.
“In the same year two Israelis won very prestigious prizes,” says Blum who won under the Physiology, Pharmacology and Pathology category. “Perhaps this shows that the global scientific community is finally acknowledging Israel as a basis of good research that could be translated to very good medical practice.”
Blum cites that medical research in Israel is “overall very good” even though governmental support is terribly low. “We have many problems because of a lack of funds, and there is not enough governmental support because the state has many other things [defense, security] that it has to spend money on. And to get a grant from other sources often proves to be really
difficult because we’re Israeli,” explains Blum, who hails from the same institute as 2004 Nobel Laureates Prof. Avram Hershko and Prof. Aaron
And though he is at the start of his career, Blum says the ACC award didn’t come too early in his profession. “This prize was for a young investigator, not age-wise but in terms of the stage of research. I think it fit career-wise. I hope it will help me to continue my research and help me get more grants and further acknowledgement from other societies to advance my work,” he says.
Asked if he was head-hunted by American institutions during his visit to Atlanta for the American College of Cardiology session, Blum smiles before explaining that this is his home.
“My intentions are to stay in Israel. I think it’s more important to stay here, conduct good research here, and garner more such acknowledgements for Israel than to be just one of many in the US or some other place in the world. I think with the limited resources that we have, we can do and do wonders.”