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From cancer to Crohn, Israel pushes precision medicine to the next level

Every human being is unique, not only in their mind but also in their body. Therefore, not all individuals will respond to the same healthcare treatments in the same way. For this reason, understanding everyone’s specific features and needs, and tailoring procedures and medications based on them, can make the difference between success and failure.

To achieve this goal, 11 research proposals bringing together Israeli top scientists in the fields of medicine, data analysis, artificial intelligence and more were awarded NIS 32 million by the Israel Precision Medicine Partnership, the organization announced Monday.

“Precision medicine is the future of medicine,” said Prof. Yuval Dor, head of the Life Sciences and Medicine Division of the Israel Science Foundation, which operates the partnership.

“Every individual is different because we all have different genes that determine a different biology, and this presents us with the opportunity to treat them better,” he said. “For example, if 1,000 people have lung cancer, we know that for some of them, this is caused by a mutation in the gene A, which can be treated with drug A, while others have a different type of lung cancer that can be better addressed with a different drug.”

Established in 2018, the Israel Precision Medicine Partnership aims to support research in the field by offering grants whose monetary value is rarely matched in the country, encouraging scientists and experts from a variety of fields and institutions to merge their knowledge and cooperate.

Cancer (Illustrative) (credit: PIXABAY)Cancer (Illustrative) (credit: PIXABAY)

It is funded by the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council of Higher Education, the Health Ministry, the National Digital Affairs Directorate of the Economy Ministry and two philanthropic organizations, Yad Hanadiv in Israel and the Klarman Family Foundation in the US.

“There’s a lot of unused potential in biomedical research,” Dor said. “We are just starting to scratch the surface, and the system is starved. People typically have very low access to resources, compared with other Western countries. This program, supported by both government bodies and philanthropies, has started to close the gap, and it’s really pushing scientific discovery forward.”

IN THE third round, the partnership received 99 applications, which were screened by an international committee led by American Nobel Laureate in chemistry Prof. Roger Kornberg and almost entirely made up of foreign scholars.

“Typically, these proposals are the result of a collaboration between a scientist in the academic field and a clinician from a hospital or another healthcare organization,” Dor said, stressing how this kind of interdisciplinary cooperation represents one of the goals of the program.

Each project aims to tackle a different medical challenge.

“One of the most interesting proposals was presented by Prof. Aaron Ciechanover, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry some 15 years ago together with some of his colleagues at the Technion [-Israel Institute of Technology],” Dor said.

“They are looking into a completely new type of cancer treatment,” he said. “They think they can manipulate cancer cells in such a way that the cells cannot tolerate the stress created by blocking the degradation of their proteins, and they die off.”

Another proposal that is especially innovative is based on the cooperation of Hebrew University of Jerusalem computer scientist Prof. Nir Friedman and Hadassah-University Medical Center hepatologist Prof. Eithan Galun, Dor said.

“They came up with a very original way of assessing the situation of the liver without actually performing a biopsy,” he said.

Currently, the procedure to examine whether an individual has a liver disease is painful and involves some degree of risk.

“They have a brilliant idea on how you can perform a blood test that will provide a lot of information on what is happening in the liver… without actually touching it, but rather finding out exactly which genes are active or dying in the liver or sending signals to the blood,” Dor said. “They have called it ‘liquid biopsy.’”

Among the other selected projects, a duo from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot and the Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikva aims to improve the sonographic diagnosis and monitoring of breast cancer and Crohn’s disease using artificial intelligence and super-resolution algorithms. Three experts from Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and the Hebrew University plan to use integrated computational and functional frameworks for optimized gene identification and therapy in rare hereditary diseases.

The NIS 210 million ($65m.) allocated to the partnership in 2018 was meant to last for four rounds of applications. In the previous two rounds, the partnership distributed around NIS 60m. ($18.6m.) each. If the program is not renewed, the next cycle might be the last one.

“My hope is that in light of the incredible success of the program, it will persuade decision-makers to carry it on in some form,” Dor said.