Several Technion professors and graduates are responsible for oncological developments that are on course to transform the way cancer is caught, diagnosed and treated

A startup that has developed a blood test to predict how well cancer patients will react to treatment is planning to collaborate with the NHS in setting up clinical trials, while a technology to help pathologists detect cancer has been given an FDA ‘breakthrough’ nod.

OncoHost – the company behind the blood test that Prof. Yuval Shaked of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology has created – is the result of a decade’s research. The trials will focus on patients diagnosed with advanced stages of melanoma or non-small cell lung cancer and will join the company’s existing trials using diagnostic platform PROphet, which uses AI to predict patient response to immunotherapy. The result is a personalised treatment plan that will help provide clinicians with potential combination strategies to overcome treatment resistance.The Israeli startup also plans to open additional clinical trial sites around the world to expand its research to other cancers.

Changing the way cancer is detected is also being revolutionised, thanks to Ibex Medical Analytics – the maker of an AI-based cancer diagnostic software. Its Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Daphna Laifenfeld, spent time researching personalised medicine during her tenure at the Technion. 

The startup has received a breakthrough device designation by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which will help expedite the clinical review and regulatory approval of its technology. In receiving this, its potential to help pathologists both detect and diagnose cancer has been formally acknowledged.

The software is already used in labs worldwide as part of everyday clinical practice, as well as continually demonstrating its positive outcomes in clinical studies. 

Meanwhile, Prof. Marcelle Machluf – yet another Technion professor – has made it her life’s work to create a medicine delivery system that can defeat cancer. The co-founder and inventor of NanoGhost – a technology that targets cancer cells with modified adult stem cells loaded with medicine – is also the faculty dean of Biotechnology & Food Engineering at the Technion, and it was here that she started the research that led to NanoGhost in 2010.

NanoGhost – which has already raised $5 million – is showing promising progress, with clinical trials aimed by 2023.

An artificial molecule that could slow down the development of Alzheimer’s disease has been developed

A team of Israeli scientists from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology has paved the way for better treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Professor Galia Maayan, along with doctoral student Anastasia Behar from the Faculty of Chemistry at the university, collaborated with Professor Christelle Hureau of The French National Centre for Scientific Research in discovering a molecule that can break down the build-up of copper in the brain that can cause disease.

An accumulation of copper has long been known to cause degenerative illnesses, like Alzheimer’s, due to its ability in preventing toxic proteins from leaving the brain.

The molecule – named P3 – that they have created works to bind the copper ions together and extract them. Vitally, it manages to do this without simultaneously binding zinc ions, which are needed for normal brain functioning.

Despite early promising results, the team have made it clear that they plan to take “the base” and ‘further develop’ it into something even better.

Their findings were published in the weekly peer-reviewed scientific journal, Andewandte Chemie.

The innovative breakthrough coincided with Breast Cancer Awareness Month and is the result of years of research

A groundbreaking treatment for breast cancer has been developed by researchers at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology.

The study – led by Professor Avi Schroeder and Maya Kaduri, a PhD student at the Wolfson Faculty of Chemical Engineering – is based on the finding that cancer cells recruit the nerve cells around them to both stimulate and spread the disease. As a result, they have developed a treatment that targets the tumour through the nerve cells by injecting anaesthetic into the bloodstream to paralyse the communication between the nerve and cancer cells. 

Early results – tested on mice – have proven a significant inhibition of tumour development and mastitis to the lungs, brain and bone marrow, and the researchers believe it could have real-world implications for the treatment of breast cancer in humans.

Prof. Schroeder has years of experience developing innovative cancer treatments, using technologies that transport drugs to tumours without damaging healthy tissue.

“We know how to create the exact size of particles needed, and that is critical because it’s the key to penetrating the tumour,” Kaduri said. “The anesthetising particles we developed move through the bloodstream without penetrating healthy tissue.” 

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in women, with approximately 11,500 women and 85 men in the UK dying from the disease each year.

Put together Israel’s vast agricultural and technological knowhow, and you’ve got breakthroughs on a global scale.

What is the recipe for meat and dairy without cows? Snacks and sauces with less sugar and salt? Long-lasting fresh produce and compostable food wrappers?

A fast-growing, climate-threatened world is hungry for such recipes. Appropriately enough, the search began in the kitchen — or rather, The Kitchen.

The world’s first food-tech hub was launched in 2015 by The Strauss Group, one of Israel’s largest food producers, as part of the Israeli Innovation Authority’s Technological Incubators Program.

“This doesn’t exist elsewhere,” said The Kitchen’s vice president of business development, Amir Zaidman, in 2016.

Today, The Kitchen has 22 portfolio companies cooking up innovations to feed the world more efficiently, sustainably and securely.

But The Kitchen is no longer alone: Governmental, corporate and academic food-tech labs and incubators are opening across Israel. The number of food-tech startups has risen to approximately 400.

Food-tech (increasingly referred to as agri-food-tech) combines two of Israel’s best assets, says Nisan Zeevi, head of business development at Margalit Startup City #Galilee.

“Our agricultural knowhow, which is one of the wonders of the world, and our technological knowhow that we have built in the past 40 to 50 years. Put them together and you’ve got breakthroughs on a global scale.”

Success is sticky

The Israeli Economy and Industry Ministry reports that food-tech investment nearly doubled between 2013 ($52 million) and 2018 ($100 million) with input from multinationals including Coca-Cola, Mars, Tyson Foods, Nestle, Danone, AB inBev, Starbucks, PepsiCo, McDonalds, Heineken and Unilever.

Tel Aviv research firm IVC found food-tech garnered $432 million in investments in 2020, less than sectors such as cyber and fintech, but growing fast.

Amir Zaidman, VP bus dev for The Kitchen food-tech hub. Photo by Tal Shahar

“Success stories attract more entrepreneurs into the field,” says The Kitchen’s Zaidman, who was scheduled to speak at the Food Biotech CongressNovember 8-11 and at the first global virtual food trade show, November 21-24.

“Israel is a very entrepreneurial country and both new and serial entrepreneurs are always thinking about the next big thing. They see food-tech is an impact area on environment and health,” says Zaidman.

“Maybe they were hesitant before when looking at the money going into sectors like cyber, but now they see they can get capital investment in food-tech that can be game-changing.”

Zaidman predicts major financing rounds for Israeli food-tech in 2022.

“Startups like [cultivated steak pioneer] Aleph Farms don’t even have products in the market yet. But what they are doing is so amazing they get a lot of attention.”

Indeed, Aleph Farms got a recent investment from Leonardo DiCaprio,  while Ashton Kutcher put money into MeaTech.

Breakthroughs on a global scale

One of the Israeli companies already making inroads in the global market is InnovoPro. Its proprietary process transforms chickpeas – the humble nourishing basis of hummus — into a neutral-tasting protein concentrate for foods and beverages.

InnovoPro has factories in Canada and Germany, and a new subsidiary in Chicago as it launches a chickpea TVP (texturized vegetable protein) for plant-based burgers, nuggets and meatballs. Migros, Switzerland’s largest retailer and supermarket chain, uses InnovoPro’s product in a dairy-free yogurt.

“Hummus is a Middle East product. You take the technology and combine it with Israeli knowhow and – boom — you’ve got a successful food-tech company,” says Zeevi.

Hoping to create similar successes, Jerusalem-based Margalit Startup City inaugurated its Galilee branch in September.

The Kiryat Shmona campus encompasses a food-tech accelerator, institute, executive park and Fresh Start early-stage incubator supported by food giants Tnuva and Tempo along with Finistere Ventures and OurCrowd.

“Five years ago we came to the Galilee and wrote a plan to transform this area into a food-tech and ag-tech center with the involvement of municipalities, service providers, investors, academies and research institutes across the Galilee. The government gave it a budget of 500 million shekels,” says Zeevi.

Margalit Startup City #Galilee has attracted satellite offices of Jerusalem Venture Partners, Cisco, Tel Hai College and the Migal Galilee Research Institute of the Israeli Science and Technology Ministry.

One portfolio company, DynaFresh, was established by Migal post-harvest experts to optimize the shelf life of fresh produce.

“Margalit Startup City is where everything converges at a physical hub and meets the international and business sector,” says Zeevi.

Unlike cyber and fintech, a food-tech company not only needs skilled scientists and technicians but also, after scaleup, factory workers.

This makes food-tech a promising equal-opportunity employment driver for Israel’s northern and southern periphery, says Zeevi.

Hearty investments

Yossi Halevy, VP bus dev for Millennium Food-Tech. Photo courtesy of Millennium

Not only existing VCs are investing in food-tech. Israel also has Millennium Food-Tech, an R&D partnership started in June 2020 and traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.

“There was no specialized vehicle in Israel for the post-seed food-tech startup with proven technology waiting to be piloted and commercialized,” VP Business Development Yossi Halevy tells ISRAEL21c.

“So we built a VC dedicated to food-tech. This is a sector that is untouched.”

Among Millennium’s portfolio companies are SavorEat(alternative protein), Tipa (compostable packaging), TripleW(lactic acid and other upcycled products from food waste), Aleph Farms, and Phytolon (natural food colors).

Halevy, a certified public accountant formerly with E&Y in Tel Aviv, became interested in venture creation in food and agriculture four years ago, when “the ecosystem was in diapers,” he says.

So he jumped at the chance to join his old friend, former Fresh Start director Chanan Schneider, in Millennium Food-Tech.

‘We work with Nestlé and other major food companies,” Halevy tells ISRAEL21c. “It’s a triangle relationship: We use their knowledge for our due diligence, and they use ours for investment and proof of concept.”

Halevy sees ingredient development as one of Israel’s strongest capabilities because it maximizes the country’s well-honed, well-connected multidisciplinary talents.

“Israel is unique from many aspects, but most significant is that everyone knows everyone,” he points out.

“That’s very helpful in food-tech because it has so many disciplines that need to be combined — innovation, entrepreneurship, biotech, physics, chemistry, robotics, computer vision, artificial intelligence. You can easily assemble a team and cross-mine ideas and development.”

Corporations get in onfood-tech 

The food-tech scene in Israel is expanding like a yeasty bread dough into many sectors, from corporate to academic to nonprofit, with governmental participation sprinkled in.

International Flavors & Fragrances, a US-based multinational with operations in Migdal HaEmek in northern Israel, runs the FoodNxt incubator in partnership with the Israel Innovation Authority.

IFF shares its knowledge about industry processes and technologies, international regulations and general food science expertise. The incubator also provides funding and helps portfolio startups build business plans, develop patent strategies and test products.

Rakefet Rosenblatt, R&D technologist and application manager at Salt of the Earth. Photo courtesy of Salt of the Earth

Salt of The Earth, a global Israeli company in the North founded in 1922, has teamed up with Tel-Hai College for multiple projects, such as testing ingredients at the college’s analytical lab.

Tel-Hai students recently were challenged to create innovations emphasizing sodium reduction and flavor enhancement. They were guided by Salt of The Earth R&D technologist and application manager Rakefet Rosenblatt, a food science graduate of Tel-Hai. 

“We always think about what we can make better,” she tells ISRAEL21c. “Salt is a known product; how can we help the industry use it in a smarter way? Students have great ideas and it’s good to invest in them.”

One group proposed a salt product enhanced with mineral-rich seaweed, using a special process to neutralize the seaweed’s strong flavor and color. Another group developed a savory vegan snack based on chickpea flour and Salt of the Earth’s Mediterranean Umami Bold flavor enhancer.

Tel-Hai students with their Chick Chips. Photo courtesy of Tel-Hai College

At the opposite end of Israel, down south in the Negev town of Rahat, seven major companies with a regional presence, such as SodaStream, Netafim and Dolav Plastic Products, joined with academic and VC partners in the IIA’s InNegev incubator for food-tech, ag-tech, clean-tech and Industry 4.0.

“This is our first year of operation. We’re mostly doing venture creation now, utilizing the capabilities of our partners in the Negev,” says Amir Tzach, InNegev’s VP Business Development & Investments.

Among food-tech innovations under consideration at InNegev are post-harvest sensors – one that detects bacteria and another that detects soft rot in potatoes early enough so that the bad potato(es) can be removed before the rot spreads.

In the hot field of alternative protein, InNegev is looking at companies in the South engaged in algae production, and may assist local meat-processing facilities in converting space for alt-protein production.

InNegev’s board of directors and team. Top from left: Yuval Lazi, Dror Karavani, Lilach Shushan, Zeev Miller, Dror Green, Ophir Golan, Noa Isralowitz; bottom: Assaf Yerushalmi, Kobi Liberman, Udi Arev, Amir Tzach. Photo by Anat Levi Tzvi

Academic and nonprofit food-tech

Going back up north, the Carasso FoodTech Innovation Center was inaugurated in September at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.

The center will house R&D for industrial production, a startup hub, packaging laboratory, industrial kitchen, tasting and evaluation units, and an educational visitor area.

Prof. Marcelle Machluf, dean of the Technion Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering, said that the Covid-19 pandemic “has only emphasized the importance of food and biotechnology in maintaining our existence and meeting future existential challenges. To address the many challenges in this field, including access to healthy, affordable food and innovative medical treatments, we need advanced infrastructure that will enable the integration of new engineering and scientific tools.”

Yoel Carasso, chairman of Carasso Motors and Prof. Marcelle Machluf, dean of the Technion Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering. Photo by Rami Sheloush/Technion Spokesperson’s Office

In Tel Aviv, the Israeli not-for-profit Start-Up Nation Central joined forces with global entrepreneur network TiE to advance Israeli and Indian food- and ag-tech solutions for novel foods, post-harvest storage, alternative protein, food safety and packaging.

Israeli startups selected for the mentorship program so far include multiple award-winning grasshopper protein company Hargol, automated cooking manufacturer Kitchen Robotics, vision-based robotic controller Deep Learning Robotics and produce storage humidity control solution UmiGo.

Fighting food scarcity for the future

Start-Up Nation Central CEO Avi Hasson noted that farmers face increasingly harsher weather conditions, environmental pollutants and soil depletion.

Start-Up Nation Central CEO Avi Hasson. Photo by Vered Farkash

Coupled with population growth and increased product demand, these issues increase global concerns about food security.

“Technologies that have the potential to either improve crop yields or transform, preserve, and tailor foods with improved functional and nutritional values will ensure a stable supply of food in the future,” said Hasson.

The Kitchen’s Zaidman predicts that as the sector matures, we’ll see more segmentation.

“For example, Aleph Farms started working on cultivated meat before there was any existing technology. A lot of the innovation we’ll see in the next two to three years will be much more specialized in certain aspects that support this industry,” he explains.

“In terms of global trends, alternative proteins will continue as a strong trend because we’re just scratching the surface of consumer interest. There’s a lot of potential in alternative dairy, seafood and eggs.”

Salt enhanced with mineral-rich seaweed is an innovation created at Tel-Hai College. Photo courtesy of Salt of the Earth

Aviv Oren, business engagement and innovation director of the Israeli branch of the Good Food Institute, says Israel hosts about 100 alt-protein startups and 28 alt-protein research labs in academic institutions.

One of the newest ones, Alfred’s, offers an innovative platform for producing plant-based whole cuts for the meat, poultry, meat analog and cultivated meat industry.

“Israel now ranks second in the world behind the United States in its total number of fermentation and cultivated meat companies,” Oren notes.

GFI Israel Managing Director Nir Goldstein sees Israel’s role as potentially monumental.

“With governmental support in this industry, Israel, which currently exports only five percent of the food it produces, could become a global supplier of raw materials and advanced production technologies for alternative proteins,” he says.

Inexpensive, fast method to make freeform optics could benefit applications from eyewear to telescopes.

Researchers have developed a way to create freeform optical components by shaping a volume of curable liquid polymer. The new method is poised to enable faster prototyping of customized optical components for a variety of applications including corrective lenses, augmented and virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, medical imaging, and astronomy.

Common devices such as eyeglasses or cameras rely on lenses – optical components with spherical or cylindrical surfaces, or slight deviations from such shapes. However, more advanced optical functionalities can be obtained from surfaces with complex topographies. Currently, fabricating such freeform optics is very difficult and expensive because of the specialized equipment required to mechanically process and polish their surfaces.

“Our approach to making freeform optics achieves extremely smooth surfaces and can be implemented using basic equipment that can be found in most labs,” said research team leader Moran Bercovici from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. “This makes the technology very accessible, even in low resource settings.”

In Optica, Optica Publishing Group’s journal for high-impact research, Bercovici and colleagues show that their new technique can be used to fabricate freeform components with sub-nanometer surface roughness in just minutes. Unlike other prototyping methods such as 3D printing, the fabrication time remains short even if the volume of the manufactured component increases.

Freeform optical components with sub-nanometer surface roughness are fabricated within minutes by shaping liquid volumes. Credit: Technion – Israel Institute of Technology

“Currently, optical engineers pay tens of thousands of dollars for specially designed freeform components and wait months for them to arrive,” said Omer Luria, one of the contributors to the paper. “Our technology is poised to radically decrease both the waiting time and the cost of complex optical prototypes, which could greatly speed up the development of new optical designs.”

From eyeglasses to complex optics

The researchers decided to develop the new method after learning that 2.5 billion people around the world don’t have access to corrective eyewear. “We set out to find a simple method for fabricating high quality optical components that does not rely on mechanical processing or complex and expensive infrastructure,” said Valeri Frumkin, who first developed the method in Bercovici’s lab. “We then discovered that we could expand our method to produce much more complex and interesting optical topographies.”

One of the primary challenges in making optics by curing a liquid polymer is that for optics larger than about 2 millimeters, gravity dominates over surface forces, which causes the liquid to flatten into a puddle. To overcome this, the researchers developed a way to fabricate lenses using liquid polymer that is submerged in another liquid. The buoyancy counteracts gravity, allowing surface tension to dominate.

With gravity out of the picture, the researchers could fabricate smooth optical surfaces by controlling the surface topography of the lens liquid. This entails injecting the lens liquid into a supportive frame so that the lens liquid wets the inside of the frame and then relaxes into a stable configuration. Once the required topography is achieved, the lens liquid can be solidified by UV exposure or other methods to complete the fabrication process.

After using the liquid fabrication method to make simple spherical lenses, the researchers expanded to optical components with various geometries — including toroid and trefoil shapes — and sizes up to 200 mm. They show that the resulting lenses exhibited surface qualities similar to the best polishing technologies available while being orders of magnitude quicker and simpler to make. In the work published in Optica, they further expanded the method to create freeform surfaces, by modifying the shape of the supportive frame.

Infinite possibilities

“We identified an infinite range of possible optical topographies that can be fabricated using our approach,” said Mor Elgarisi, the paper’s lead author. “The method can be used to make components of any size, and because liquid surfaces are naturally smooth, no polishing is required. The approach is also compatible with any liquid that can be solidified and has the advantage of not producing any waste.”

The researchers are now working to automate the fabrication process so that various optical topographies can be made in a precise and repeatable way. They are also experimenting with various optical polymers to find out which ones produce the best optical components.

Reference: “Fabrication of freeform optical components by fluidic shaping” by M. Elgarisi, V. Frumkin, O. Luria, M. Bercovici, 18 November 2021, Optica.
DOI: 10.1364/OPTICA.438763

In mice with active inflammation, suppressing the neurons that remembered it produced an immediate reduction in the inflammation.

Your phone pings. It’s a message from a friend you met for drinks last night, who just tested positive for Covid-19.

Your throat starts feeling scratchy. A short cough sputters out. Is your body temperature rising? You run to take a PCR test. When the results come back negative, you realize it was all in your head — a psychosomatic response.

Researchers from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa wanted to explore the connection between the brain’s perception of illness and the real thing.

They induced inflammation in mice, and after the inflammation subsided, the researchers triggered the neurons in the mice’s brains that were active during the initial inflammation.

The result was dramatic: The inflammation re-emerged in the same area as before. Simply “remembering” the inflammation was enough to reactivate it.

The researchers then wondered: If the brain can generate disease, can the brain also turn it off?

The answer was a resounding yes. In mice with active inflammation, suppressing the neurons that remembered it produced an immediate reduction in the inflammation.

MD-PhD student Tamar Koren, left, and Prof. Asya Rolls. Photo by Nitzan Zohar/Technion Spokesperson’s Office

There’s no guarantee this experiment would work in human beings. But it raises the possibility of a new therapeutic avenue for treating chronic inflammatory conditions such as Crohn’s disease and psoriasis.

The brain’s ability to bring on illness psychosomatically is more a feature than a bug, explained Prof. Asya Rolls, of the Technion’s Faculty of Medicine.

“The body needs to respond to infection as quickly as possible before the attacking bacteria or viruses can multiply,” she said.

“If certain activity – for example consuming particular foods – has exposed the body to infection and inflammation once, there is an advantage to gearing up for battle when one is about to engage in the same activity again. A shorter response time would allow the body to defeat the infection faster and with less effort.”

The research was led by Tamar Koren, an MD-PhD student in Rolls’ lab. Other participants included Dr. Kobi Rosenblum of the University of Haifa and Dr. Fahed Hakim of EMMS Hospital in Nazareth.

The study was supported by the European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant, the Allen and Jewel Prince Center for Neurodegenerative Disorders of the Brain, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Wellcome Trust.

SOURCE

Can our brain make our body sick? Likely yes, Israeli research shows

Technion scientists uncovered how neurons can trigger physiological responses in the body that translate in real illnesses but might also help treat them.

Insular neurons (in red) that were captured during colitis and reactivated (in green) upon recovery. Lower panel: Colon sections showing white blood cells (in red) present in the tissue of a mouse after insular neurons reactivation (Gq, right) and its non-activated control. (photo credit: NITZAN ZOHAR/TECHNION SPOKESPERSON’S OFFICE)

Can our brain trigger an actual illness in the body? New research by Technion-Israel Institute of Technology scientists conducted on mice suggests that the answer is likely yes.

Over the years, the intuitive idea that the brain exercises a significant influence on people’s physical well-being has been supported by increasing scientific evidence.

“Several years ago, we studied the mechanism behind the placebo effect, demonstrating that when people experience a positive expectation, their conditions improve in many ways,” Technion Prof. Asya Rolls said.

“We were able to show that by activating brain areas that are related to positive expectations, we would boost the immune response,” she said. “What amazed us was how precise this response was, and therefore we thought that the brain could not have such an exact control of the system without knowing what its status is.”

The researchers started to examine whether the brain is able to represent the status of the immune system.

Professor Asya Rolls (credit: NITZAN ZOHAR/TECHNION SPOKESPERSON’S OFFICE)

The new study was led by Rolls and her MD/PhD student Tamar Koren and was conducted in cooperation with Dr. Kobi Rosenblum of the University of Haifa and Dr. Fahed Hakim of EMMS Nazareth Hospital. The results were published in the journal Cell on Monday.

The scientists checked which areas of the brain would be activated when mice experienced genetically induced colon inflammation. Among others, the insular cortex – which is responsible for sensations such as thirst, hunger and pain and other manifestations of the body’s physiological state – presented increased neurological activity.

“When we reactivated the same neurons afterward, we recorded the same inflammatory response,” Rolls said. “It was quite shocking.”

The results offer evidence that the brain contains a representation of the immune system, and it can reactivate it when presented with specific stimuli and possibly other forms of memories, the researchers said.

The brain does not cause the body to be reinfected by a pathogen, but it might potentially trigger a reaction in the body similar to the one caused by the original infection, they said.

“We have to remember that, many times, the damage to the body is not caused by the pathogen itself but, rather, by the immune system’s reaction to it,” Rolls said.

The mechanism may help explain what triggers psychosomatic disorders, which are health problems that appear without any apparent biological cause, the researchers found. Autoimmune diseases or other conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, could also be based on a similar process.

It would be wrong to assume that the results obtained from the study on mice will translate in humans in the exact same way, Rolls said.

However, there is hope that the research can contribute to understanding better how certain diseases work and how to treat them, possibly by inhibiting the neurons from activating and triggering the inflammation.

“There are many ways we can control neuronal activities in the human brain, for example, through magnetic or electrical stimulation or by neurofeedback when a person learns how to control their neurons on their own,” Rolls said.

“We know that we can do it because we know the power of a psychosomatic effect,” she said. “For example, during the clinical trial of the COVID vaccine, many people who received the placebo experienced very similar side effects to those who received the actual vaccine. Clearly, this was caused by some mental process resulting in a physiological response.”

Israeli scientists from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology have developed an artificial molecule that could inhibit the development of Alzheimer’s disease, conceivably paving the way for better treatment of the disease.

The Technion scientists collaborated with The French National Centre for Scientific Research (CRNS) and published their findings in the weekly peer-reviewed Angewandte Chemie scientific journal published on behalf of the German Chemical Society.

The study was led by Professor Galia Maayan and doctoral student Anastasia Behar from the Schulich Faculty of Chemistry at the Technion, in collaboration with Prof. Christelle Hureau from the Laboratoire de Chimie de Coordination du CNRS, Toulouse, France.

Professor Galia Maayan of the Schulich Faculty of Chemistry at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. Courtesy.

The findings showed that an accumulation of copper ions, when interacting with the amyloid beta (Aβ) can lead to cell toxicity, causing dangerous conditions, including degenerative diseases of the brain, like Alzheimer’s. This accumulation of copper disrupts the removal of the Aβ , a peptide linked to the plaques that form in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

A 2013 study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal written by a group led by Rashid Deane, a research professor in the University of Rochester’s Medical Center department of neurosurgery, said that copper accumulation in the body increases the progression of Alzheimer’s disease by preventing toxic proteins from leaving the brain. More specifically, copper ion interaction with the Aβ promotes ROS, or reactive oxygen species, highly reactive chemicals formed from oxygen. The production of ROS due to metal ions, like copper, leads to oxidative damages to the Aβ peptide and the potential formation of amyloid plaque.

Researchers have learned that the breakdown of the copper- Aβ complex and the removal of copper from the amyloid, prevents cells’ death and inhibition of the disease. The extraction of copper is done by a process called chelation or using molecules that bind the copper ions and extract them from the amyloid.

Developing the foundation

Technion Chemistry Professor Galia Maayan did not begin her career by studying copper ion accumulation and its impact on degenerative diseases. Instead, she simply focused on the molecule.

“I’m a chemist. So I look at a molecule and I said, ‘Oh I have this molecule, I have this metal ion, in this case, copper, how can I design something that is selective for copper?’ And then I will think about other applications,” she tells NoCamels, “When I did my postdoc at NYU, I learned a lot about these peptide mimics or peptoids. I developed chelators that are not selective [to specific metal ions.]”

Doctoral student Anastasia Behar of the Technion. Courtesy.

Prof. Maayan developed the foundation for copper and zinc-binding of peptoids and investigated how peptoids bound them — something she says no one had ever done up to that point — but it wasn’t until she met her first PhD student, Maria Baskin, (another author of the paper), that she understood that the molecules could be good for chelating metal ions related to specific diseases.

“We discussed copper, and then we started to think about Alzheimer’s,” she says, “and then we started to work on it.”

Prof. Maayan and Baskin developed the first generation of chelator molecules selective to copper. But they were not water soluble, she explains. “In order to start making the drugs you want to develop, you need your molecule to be, at least to a certain extent, water soluble.”

The Technion researchers developed their own method of making the molecule water soluble, without changing its shape or organization and patented the result. Thus, a water soluble peptoid chelator was created that could still selectively bind copper. Meanwhile, Anastasia Behar, who joined Prof. Maayan’s lab while completing her Master’s in Chemistry at the Technion, was sent to France for three months to work with CRNS after Prof. Maayan made a connection with Prof. Christelle Hureau.

Behar tells NoCamels that in France, the researchers created targeted environments where they could simulate processes in the brain where the accumulation of metals bound to Aβ was happening.

“Then we added our molecule and tested if it can interact with the amyloid-beta, take out the copper, and stop the radical production, which the molecule did eventually,” she explains.

“While working on the molecule, Nastia [Anastasia] learned how to do biochemical experiments to show the biology that the molecule can do. All of the things that we think can lead us toward future development of peptoids as drugs for Alzheimer’s,” Prof. Maayan said.

The Technion researchers developed their own method of making the molecule water soluble, without changing its scaffold or the way it was organized. This was tested in France. The water soluble peptoid chelator, a synthetic molecule dubbed P3, was able to perform its task selectively. It strongly binds copper and forms CuP3, extracting the copper from the amyloid. By doing this, it inhibits and even suppresses the formation of harmful oxidizing agents, without creating new processes, which neutralize amyloid toxicity.

Prof. Maayan says it’s important to note that the molecule that the researchers established is not the actual molecule they would like to be used when creating drug treatments for Alzheimer’s.

“It has solubility issues, stability issues. This is not a molecule we’re going to develop. This is just a base,” she tells NoCamels, “We are going to take it further and develop more and more molecules that will be better. Right now we’ve just put down the foundation and this is the breakthrough. We will make molecules that are more feasible later on.”

The next step, Prof. Maayan explains, is to go beyond the mimicking of an environment of a cell or of the brain in terms of a PH solution and to do more in-vitro experiments, or experiments with cells.

“We’ll do some in vitro experiments, then we will optimize the chemistry again, and then go back to in vitro until we are ready to go in vivo [with a living organism.],” she says, “It’s a long process. It can take several years, but we see the way so it’s not vague. We see the way and we now know what we need to do.”

Since the new algorithm was introduced, Maccabi health fund doctors have treated tens of thousands of UTI cases, and there has been a drop of around 35% in the need to switch antibiotics following the development of bacterial resistance to the drug prescribed.

Doctors at Israel’s Maccabi national health fund have recently begun working with an Artificial Intelligence-based predictive algorithm that advises doctors in the process of deciding on personalized antibiotic treatment for patients.

The new algorithm was developed by the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology together with KSM (Kahn-Sagol-Maccabi), the Maccabi Research and Innovation Center.

Maccabi chose to focus its first diagnoses on urinary tract infection – the most common bacterial infection among women. Around 30% of females suffer from the infection at least once during their lifetime, and up to 10% experience recurrent infections. Until now, in most cases, general treatment has been administered based on clinical guidelines and medical judgment. Sometimes, the bacteria prove to be antibiotic-resistant, resulting in the need to change the treatment plan.

Since the new algorithm was introduced, Maccabi doctors have treated tens of thousands of cases, and there has been a drop of around 35% in the need to switch antibiotics following the development of bacterial resistance to the drug prescribed.

This is significant because accuracy in the choice of antibiotics is far greater thanks to the new technology. In light of the success of this new development in the treatment of UTI, Maccabi has begun working on the development of additional detection systems that will help to contend with other infectious diseases that require personalized treatment with antibiotics.

Prof. Roy Kishony of the Technion Faculty of Biology (Technion)

The automated system works by recommending the most suitable antibiotic treatment for the patient to the doctor, based on clinical guidelines and other criteria such as age, gender, pregnancy status, residence in an assisted living facility, and personal history of UTI and antibiotics administered.

The unique algorithm was developed by Prof. Roy Kishony and Dr. Idan Yelin of the Technion Faculty of Biology, in cooperation with KSM, headed by Dr. Tal Patalon, and was introduced and implemented among Maccabi’s doctors by the health fund’s Medical Informatics team and Chief Physician’s Department.

“The algorithm we developed together with Maccabi’s experts is a major milestone in personalized medicine on the way to AI-based antibiotic treatments, which are personally tailored to the patient according to the prediction of treatment response and mitigate the development of resistant bacteria,” said Kishony.

Dr. Shira Greenfield, Director of Medical Informatics at Maccabi, said: “The significance of administering personalized antibiotic treatment is that it lowers the risk of antibiotic resistance developing – a global problem which all healthcare entities are working to solve.”

Dr. Martin Ellis, Chairman of the Israel Society of Hematology and Transfusion Medicine, spoke to The Jerusalem Post about two newer treatments for the main types of blood cancer.

Although only around five out of every 100,000 people suffer from blood cancer, the disease is among the most serious and deadly.

An estimated 68,000 people die from blood cancer each year in the United States alone, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. The statistics in Israel are unknown.

But new and innovative treatments are being explored, according to Dr. Martin Ellis, Chairman of the Israel Society of Hematology and Transfusion Medicine.

He spoke to The Jerusalem Post about two newer treatments for the main types of blood cancers, leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma, in recognition of Blood Cancer Awareness Month.

For starters, CAR-T cells are currently playing a key role in treating people with blood cancer.

“We remove the T-cells from the patient and send them to the lab, where they get engineered using genetic engineering technology to identify specific molecules on the surface of the patient’s cancer,” Ellis, who is also head of the Hematology Department at Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, explained. “These engineered CAR-T cells are re-infused into the body intravenously. Then, the modified cells seek and destroy the malignant cells in the body.”

A model of the protein (the blue ribbon) and the DNA (the spheres) is binds (credit: WEIZMANN INSTITUTE OF SCIENCE)

He said the treatment is generally used on people with lymphoma and multiple myeloma, and specifically those who had prior treatments that did not work or had been in remission and the cancer came back.

“CAR-T can achieve a remission in the region of 60% to 70% of patients,” Ellis said. “And it appears that around 30% are actually cured. This is an unprecedented rate of success in the realm of cancer therapy.”

Doctors are already using the patient’s own immune system to attack his or her tumors, but on the horizon will be the use of CRISPR technology, which is “basically modifying as you would with an eraser and pencil the sequence of DNA in tumor cells and replacing the abnormal part of the DNA with normal DNA,” he explained.

So far, this has been done successfully in benign hematology, but not in malignant hematology. It is “trickier when it comes to cancer cells because the abnormalities are many and vary from cell to cell,” Ellis said. But he added that he expects doctors and scientists to get there soon.

Israel has been at the forefront of the next generation of blood cancer treatments. The CAR-T technology was first conceived and developed in the Weizmann Institute of Science by renowned immunologist Zelig Eshhar.

Moreover, Israeli Nobel Prize winning scientists Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko from the Technion discovered a pathway responsible for the degradation of proteins, which was crucial to the creation of proteasome inhibitors that slow the degradation of proteins and hence inhibit the progression of cancer. Specifically, one of the most successful drugs used to treat multiple myeloma, Bortezomib, is based on this discovery.

“When it comes to treating blood cancers, the Israeli contribution has been significant and, as usual, out of proportion to our population and size,” Ellis said.