Weizmann research has led to two of the four drugs used against multiple sclerosis in the United States and worldwide.The prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, is known for its cutting-edge research and prides itself on being a bit of an ivory tower where superior scientists are allowed to pursue their own interests regardless of practical considerations.
That reputation is true as far as its goes. But, in spite of the emphasis on pure science, Yeda Research and Development, Weizmann’s technology transfer arm, has had great success in its efforts to help convert the institute’s discoveries into products that benefit people worldwide, especially in the area of health care and pharmaceuticals.
Some of the institute’s research has been developed internationally, including two of the four drugs used in the United States and worldwide to treat multiple sclerosis – Copaxone made by Israel-based Teva Pharmaceuticals, whose sales in 2001 totaled about $360 million, and Rebif, made by Ares Serono of Switzerland and developed by its subsidiary Interpharm, whose sales in 2001 were about $370 million.
Funding from Yeda is key to sustaining Weizmann’s operating budget. Weizmann sources say that unlike other research institutes that get state funding for 80 percent of their budgets, Israeli government grants to Weizmann cover only 45 percent of its budget.
Yeda now registers about 80 patents a year, 75 percent of them in the life sciences. In all, Weizmann scientists have been responsible for about 1,000 registered patents, many of which have been developed commercially.
Official figures on the institute’s revenues from the commercial spinoffs from its research are not published, but academic sources say the income is greater than any other technology transfer company in Israel, amounting to tens of millions of dollars a year.
Yeda’s strategic goal is to take out patents on most of Weizmann’s research and commercialize as much of it as possible. Companies that have used the Institute’s technology embrace a wide variety of fields and objectives:
– NBT of Eilat, Israel, grows algae with a high concentration of beta-carotene, an aid in preventing cancer. The algae are sold in Japan as tablets and Weizmann developed the technology for producing the beta-carotene from them.
– NDS in Jerusalem has developed a smart card for encoding satellite communications used by the Israeli YES satellite company, among others. The algorithm for the coding, based on multiplications of prime numbers, was developed at Weizmann. Sales of this product reached $200 million in 2001.
– Israel-based Proneuron Biotechnologies works in conjunction with Teva to develop drugs based on Copaxone for treating muscular dystrophy and glaucoma.
– Israel’s Bio-Technology General is developing a product that will allow premature babies born with immature lungs to absorb oxygen until their lungs mature. The product is based on an enzyme whose function was identified at Weizmann and the rights to which were sold to BTG. The company’s product is in the third stage of clinical trials. BTG also developed a vaccine against hepatitis B based on research conducted at Weizmann. The vaccine is also in its third stage of clinical trials, and the company has begun selling it in the United States and Israel.
– Peptor is developing a drug for Type I diabetes based on the drug peptide. Peptor purchased the rights to use peptide from Weizmann. The drug is in the second stage of clinical trials and the company has signed an agreement with the international drug company Aventis for its continued development.
– XTL is developing two drugs for treating hepatitis B and C, that are in the first and second stages of clinical trials. The development of the drugs is based on research conducted on rats at Weizmann.
Despite the range of products licensed by Yeda, Weizmann officials say commerce is only a secondary consideration to the overall mission of the Institute.
“We do not direct the researchers toward practical science,” said Prof. Haim Garty, Yeda’s vice president of technical applications. “It is the nature of academia to recruit excellent researchers and to let them focus on fields that interest them. If you choose good people, they will do the right thing on their own.”
Garty said that Yeda tries to reconcile the conflict between the practical aims of the researcher, which is to share progress and discoveries with the academic world as a whole, and the needs of the commercializing company that wants patent protection before it invests millions in producing a product.
“The scientist’s job is to publish his findings in the best peer journals and to lecture at conferences so that as many people as possible will confirm the findings and will use them in their work. That is how science progresses,” Garty said.
“However, the moment a scientist does that, it is no longer legally possible to submit an application to register a patent on the discovery. Similarly, in order for the discovery to become a product, someone has to invest a lot of money in it – that’s up to $800 million to develop a drug – and no one will invest that much money without patent protection.”
After a patent is approved on a discovery, Yeda handles contract talks with companies interested in obtaining a license to use it. Weizmann’s international reputation helps attract the interest of overseas and Israeli companies that are looking for promising products.
About 55 percent of the senior scientific staff at Weizmann is involved in the life sciences, with the rest in computer sciences, chemistry and physics, Garty said.
“The commercial fields are a matter of fashion,” he said. “Today, everyone wants nanotechnology. In the past they were interested in electro-optics. Biotechnology is still a big hope, and Israel has a lot to offer in that field.”