Prof. Rachel Levy in her lab at Ben-Gurion Univeristy.The transformation in her laboratory mice was so dramatic that Israeli biochemist Prof. Rachel Levy could not believe her eyes when she first saw the results. The mice, suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis, had been unable to move because of their extremely swollen and deformed paws and limbs. But within six days of treatment with an innovative anti-inflammatory antisense drug, the inflammation was reduced so significantly, the mice were running about normally.
Levy’s breakthrough in discovering the drug, labeled BL-3030, was the result of years of extensive research focused on host defense mechanism against infections and inflammation, a common cause of death particularly among the elderly.
Inflammation is a critical factor in numerous diseases affecting a significant part of the population worldwide. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic and often debilitating autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks joint tissue, leading to pain, inflammation, deformity and disability that can be permanent.
At present, inflammatory diseases are treated with steroids or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. These drugs have either limited therapeutic benefit or severe side effects, which prevent their long-term use.
Levy’s BL-3030 molecule, prevents the synthesis of a protein known as cytosolic phospholipase A2, which has a critical role in development of inflammation.
“It is very specific molecule and, at least in the mouse model, has no side effects. Arthritis in mice is very similar to that suffered in humans,” said Levy, a professor of clinical biochemistry and head of the Division of Basic Sciences in the Faculty of Health Sciences of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; and also head of the Infectious Diseases Laboratory at Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheva.
Recently Israel’s leading drug development company, BioLineRx, signed an agreement with B.G. Negev (BGN) Technologies Ltd., the technology transfer company of Ben-Gurion University and Mor Research Applications, Ltd., the Technology Transfer Office of Clalit Health Services.
BioLine is investing a reported $9 million into the development and commercialization of the Bl-3030 drug, which could mean an effective medication against a wide range of inflammatory diseases. Testing on humans is expected to begin in about two years.
For Levy, who has been able to combine an extremely demanding academic career with the rigors of raising a family, this discovery was another peak in a career filled with achievement.
Levy grew up in Beersheva during its pioneering days. She has always felt an affinity for the Negev. “Luckily my husband fell in love with the city of Beersheva as well as with me and came to study at BGU,” she told ISRAEL21c. “His mission to settle in the Negev coincided with my hopes to raise our three children in the special atmosphere here.”
In addition to her research work, Levy oversees a staff of 70, and teaches undergraduate and graduate courses at BGU. When she first began her scientific career the field was dominated by men. But that has changed, she points out. “In the health sciences today, there are many women scientists, despite the fact that one must go abroad for postdoctoral fellowship.”
Levy recalls that she submitted her MSc thesis four days before the birth of her first child, “just enough time to knit a blanket!” She then took a break from the university for five years and taught high school, then returned to academia to write her PhD. She did her post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Maryland.
Levy’s oldest son finished his studies in Department of Communication Systems Engineering at BGU, while her younger son just started his first year in the same Department. Her daughter, however, is following in her mother’s footsteps, and is now studying for a PhD in neuron-science at the Weizmann Institute.