November 8, 2005

The Weizmann Institute of Science – leading the way in life sciences.Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science has been voted the best university in the world for life scientists to conduct research. The poll was conducted by The Scientist magazine as part of its third annual ‘Best Places to Work in Academia’ survey.

The more than 2,600 academics who responded to this year’s survey rated relationships with their peers, a sense of accomplishment in their work, and access to research resources as the ingredients that make for a great workplace.

“The Weizmann Institute of Science attributes much importance to the work environment and the conditions which are made accessible to the scientists, in particular to the young scientists, to enable them to use their full potential for the benefit of humanity,” said Prof. Ilan Chet, President of Weizmann.

“We are very happy on our grading according to the magazine The Scientist and consider it a great honor and simultaneously an obligation for the future.”

Following Weizmann in the poll was the University of Toronto and the University of Alberta. Topping the list in the 2005 survey of US Institutions is Clemson University, located in Clemson, South Carolina, followed by the Trudeau Institute in Saranac Lake, NY and the J. David Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, CA.

If you peek into any lab at the Weizmann Institute – located in the central Israeli city of Rehovot, you will see a staff hard at work at rigorous, meticulous, tedious tasks -the nitty gritty of scientific research.

It is hard to believe that these labs are the ‘labor rooms’ for blockbuster drug development, strategies for blocking cancer, faster and more efficient electronic processors, dramatic brain and neurological research, the creation of tools which helped crack the genetic code, and tools for the first and still the best database for mining the human genome.

Basic research was a strong component of Chaim Weizmann’s dream of building a scientific research center in Israel. Yet, Weizmann (the Institute’s founder and Israel’s first president), himself an industrial chemist who developed two chemicals essential for British arms manufacture during World War I, also believed that science could reap economic benefits for the young country.

Yeda Research and Development, the commercial arm of Weizmann Institute, (established in 1959, 10 years after the Institute was inaugurated) can point to revenues that would stagger the imagination of the Institute’s founder.

Weizmann has become a world leader in the commercialization of patents. In 1988, revenues from royalties were $1 million; in 1998, $16 million; in 2003, $93 million.

Yeda now registers about 80 patents a year, 75 percent of them in the life sciences. In all, Weizmann scientists have been responsible for well over 1,000 registered patents, many of which have been developed commercially. More than half of the senior scientific staff at Weizmann is involved in the life sciences, with the rest in computer sciences, chemistry and physics.

Professor Haim Garty, vice president for technology transfer and board chair at Yeda, said that the revenue is not the primary reason for developing new realms of research.

“It would be inconceivable that we would develop a scientific field because it is a source of revenue,” he said in a recent interview in the Israeli press. “I would prefer that a researcher from the Institute win a Nobel Prize rather than register another patent.”

With the breakthroughs that have come via the Weizmann pipeline, a Nobel is likely not too far off on the horizon. Two feathers in the Institute’s research cap are Copaxone (manufactured by Teva) and Rebif (licensed to Inter-Lab Ltd./ Serono).

The drugs are used to treat multiple sclerosis, an auto-immune disease that destroys the myelin sheaths surrounding nerve fibers. The disease’s worst symptoms include loss of vision and mobility.

Over 400,000 Americans suffer from multiple sclerosis and Copaxone has been prescribed by American doctors since 1997 as a treatment for the earlier stages of the disease. Michal Schwartz, a professor in the Neurobiology Department at Weizmann has showed that Copaxone, can also be used as a vaccine that protects the optic nerve from neuronal degeneration. Teva recently has signed an agreement with Israeli company Proneuron to explore the use of Copaxone for glaucoma and other neuro-degenerative diseases.

Rebif (recombinant interferon beta) has been shown to reduce the number and severity of attacks and delay the onset of disability. High doses of Rebif significantly reduce the number of severe MS cases. Rebif is used by approximately 70% of the MS patients worldwide.

In the fight against debilitating ostereoporosis, Institute researchers discovered Vitamin Alpha D3, a molecule that protects against brittleness as well as loss of bone mass. It is produced under license by Teva pharmaceuticals.

A vaccine for Hepatitis B (contracted from unsterile needles, and/or during blood transfusions) is another product developed by Weizmann scientists. It was the first blue and white vaccine submitted and approved in Israel. Licensed to Bio-Technology General, it is registered and sold in Israel, Vietnam, the Philipines, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

In the pipeline is another vaccine, for Type I (Juvenile) diabetes, an autoimmune disorder that usually sets in suddenly during childhood or adolescence. In the disease, the immune system attacks the body’s own insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells. Insulin, a vital hormone that controls blood sugar levels, is a key mechanism in the absortion of glucose and fat. In Phase II clinical trials, the vaccine, a synthetic protein fragment, blocks the autoimmune process in a single dose. It is licensed to Peptor, Ltd., an Israeli company which is a fully-owned subsidiary of Develogen, GMPH, Germany.

What does the future hold in store for Weizmann researchers?

One candidate is ‘the world’s smallest biological computer’ – a nanocomputer which is listed in The 2003 Guiness Book of World Records. It is composed of tiny, tiny molecules (synthetic DNA and enzymes) – so small that they can fit in a drop of water… but so powerful that they can detect changes in the balance of molecules that indicate the presence of certain cancers.

The Weizmann team says that it can already pick up molecular signals of 15 types of cancer. The prototype produced by the scientists can also fight cancer by releasing the appropriate medication to cause the cancerous cells to self-destruct.

The promising biological computer has a long way to go before it will become an actual product capable of performing medical and pharmaceutical applications within the human body. But with the drive and determination of the Weizmann life sciences staff, the nitty gritty of research will likely one day turn it into reality.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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