Ben-Gurion U. pushes to be major biotech player
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Ben-Gurion U. pushes to be major biotech player

BEERSHEBA – Steam pours out of a towering microscope so powerful it can reveal the inner space of cells, as Ohad Medalia uses liquid nitrogen to cool down the instrument.

The young Israeli chemist arrived at Ben-Gurion University following a post-doctorate at the Max-Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Germany — and shortly after the wooden crates holding the three-ton, $3 million Transmission Electron Microscope arrived as well.

The microscope is the first of its kind in Israel and one of only seven in the world. Medalia hopes the 3-D images of cells it reveals will provide insight into various types of tumors, cancers, and other diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

Medalia is one of a crop of top young Israeli scientists being recruited after their studies and postings abroad to return to Israel for cutting-edge research at the newly established National Institute of Biotechnology in the Negev, or NIBN, associated with Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba.

The NIBN got a major boost Sunday when the Israeli government pledged $30 million toward a $90 million research fund, part of a $3.6 billion, 10-year plan to develop the Negev region.

The remaining $60 million of the fund is being drawn from donations by the institute’s chief benefactor, Swiss banker Edgar de Picciotto, other donors, and competitive research funds. De Picciotto said he was motivated to invest in biotech after a personal battle with cancer.

Stoked by government funding, Israel is developing a strong base in biotechnology. Life-science research accounts for about 35 percent of civilian research in Israel, and there are perhaps 500 Israeli companies in the field, with roughly half founded in the past five years. The Economist magazine estimated that $800 million was invested in life sciences in Israel in ‘004.

Medalia chose to do his research in a relatively remote region because of the chance to collaborate with colleagues who freely exchange ideas, and because of the investment and commitment of a university determined to make itself and the NIBN into one of the world’s top biotechnology centers.

As Israel’s most geographically remote and also youngest university, Ben-Gurion in the past has struggled to compete, but they’re now pushing to become a major player in biotech. Ehud Olmert, who serves as both trade and finance minister, has been the main cabinet proponent of getting money to Ben-Gurion as part of larger government efforts to develop the Negev.

Other Israeli universities are not ceding this field to Ben-Gurion. They’re investing in biotech as well, setting up companies connected to the universities to turn the concepts developed on their campuses into marketable products and devices.

The unbridled academic freedom at universities breeds top-level research, but universities lack the commercial and multi-disciplinary orientation to develop products from that research, NIBN director Irun Cohen, an internationally renowned immunologist and researcher, said. The institute is an important venue for turning the best of university research into biotech products, he said.

Some of Ben-Gurion’s most driven scientists are recruited to work at the NIBN in a setting where they’re encouraged to focus on research and to produce free from departmental concerns such as tenure and promotions. In order to remain part of the institute, researchers have to show results.

The institute’s advisory board includes top-name scientists from around the world, including Nobel laureates Sir Aaron Klug of Cambridge University and Aaron Ciechanover of Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Also on the board is Raymond Dwek of the University of Oxford, who runs one of the largest biochemistry departments in the world.

Among the institute’s cutting-edge researchers are Smadar Cohen, chair of the biotechnology department, and Jonathan Leor from the biomedical engineering department. They have developed a method of creating tissue "scaffolds" to regenerate heart muscle after heart attacks by injecting a biodegradable polymer directly into the damaged cardiac area. The material forms a scaffold that helps strengthen the heart muscle during recovery and may even help stimulate the growth of new blood vessels. The pair’s research indicates that this leads to a healthier cardiac system after heart attacks and a reduced death rate.

Just down the hallway from Medalia and his powerful microscope sits Eitan Rubin, who is trying to merge systems biology with medical informatics. Rubin is working with electronic clinical records from Beersheba’s Soroka Hospital, which is proving to be a valuable trove of information on how patients’ health changes and how they respond to treatment. The data can help researchers hone their experiments on live subjects before they even begin to design the most effective experiments possible.

JTA

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