Israeli health innovations to watch for this year

Health care research in Israel is going strong as hospitals, companies and laboratories develop new drugs, devices and procedures.Despite slight downturns in other sectors, Israeli health care sector research has continued to flourish. And in 2002, there doesn’t seem to …

Health care research in Israel is going strong as hospitals, companies and laboratories develop new drugs, devices and procedures.Despite slight downturns in other sectors, Israeli health care sector research has continued to flourish. And in 2002, there doesn’t seem to be any sign of a slowdown, according to analysts. Here are seven health care breakthroughs to watch for this year.

Levi’s Genes – Genetic sleuths in Israel are in the midst of collecting thousands of blood samples from Jews of European origin in a race to uncover the genetic causes of diseases such as schizophrenia, asthma and Parkinson’s disease.

So far, IDgene Pharmaceuticals is the only company in Israel with government approval to study the genetic makeup of Ashkenazi Jews in the hope it could help them hone in on the genetic causes of common diseases, according to IDgene’s president Ariel Darvasi, a geneticist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. The relatively uniform genes of Ashkenazi Jews are a boon for geneticists at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University who must sift through three billion human DNA sequences and around 40,000 genes in their search for the genetic causes of common and often deadly diseases.

Say ‘Yes’ to Drugs – Israel’s Teva Pharmaceuticals, the world’s largest generics maker, should have a banner year in 2002. The company has 56 filings for generic drugs at the FDA. On 17 of those, it should have first-to-file status. In fact, market analysts such as Matt Jenkin of the Dreyfus Corp. are expecting the company’s earnings to rise 20 to 25 percent in 2002 on increased sales.

Besides its success in generics, Teva has also been one of the few generic drug makers to effectively diversify into the riskier, but more profitable, territory of proprietary drugs. With partner Aventis, Teva already sells a non-generic drug called Copaxone, which was approved in 1997 for the treatment of multiple sclerosis. For the first nine months of 2001, the companies sold $260 million worth of Copaxone, up from $175 million for the same period in 2000. That number should only increase in the year ahead, analysts say.

Gaining Attention – Israeli scientists hunting for genetic links to attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) say they’ve found a novel lead: A variation in an immune system gene may be tied to the behavior problem. The discovery by Ronen Segman and his colleagues at Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem centers on molecules that block a substance called interleukin-1 (IL-1), a key substance in the adult brain. It protects neurons as they age, and guards against various non-immune stresses. The protein also appears to be involved in setting up the development of neurons early in life, encouraging the healthy growth of brain cells that secrete and respond to dopamine – a vital brain chemical implicated in ADHD.

Earlier studies have pointed to other genes that regulate brain activity in ADHD. However, the latest study by Israeli researchers, which appears in the January issue of Molecular Psychiatry, is the first to suggest that the immune system may play a role.

Stemming the Tide – The debate over stem cells will continue in 2002 as both American and Israeli research teams have developed similar methods for turning human embryonic stem cells into the predecessors for almost any kind of brain cell. Scientists in both countries produced cultures made almost entirely of neural precursor cells that they then implanted in the brains of newborn mice. With refinements, Dr. Benjamin Reubinoff, of Hadassah’s Obstetrics & Gynecology Department, hopes their methods lead to treatments for a variety of human neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.

Even before this discovery, Israel had a jump-start in the field of stem cell research. Two research centers – Hadassah Medical Organization and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology – are among the only 10 organizations worldwide to hold existing embryonic stem-cell lines.

Diabetes … a step closer to a cure – Researchers at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science have developed a vaccine to stop the progression of juvenile diabetes, also known as Type I diabetes mellitus or insulin-dependent diabetes. The team of scientists, led by Dr. Irun Cohen, found that injecting sick mice with a peptide fragment called p277 actually halts the progression of the disease in its tracks.

Based on the diabetes research at the Weizmann Institute, Peptor, an Israeli biopharmaceutical company, has created an experimental drug called DiaPep277 to prevent or treat Type I diabetes. The researchers are hoping their work with this new drug during 2002 will lead to a cure for diabetes.

Lights, Camera, Action – Israeli military scientist Gabriel Iddan spent years working on missile technology for Israel. Iddan had worked on the seeker, or the “eye” of the missile, which captures the targets and guides it, and has successfully found a way to apply a similar technology to the medical field. Iddan has designed a tiny capsule containing a guided missile optical camera that can be swallowed, and sends images in real time as it traverses a patient’s intestines.

“It’s like swallowing a missile that doesn’t explode,” said Gavriel Meron, chief executive officer of Given Imaging, the company established three years ago to produce the pill. Meron, who volunteered to swallow the pill, said: “It was easier than swallowing an aspirin.”

In August, the FDA granted Given Imaging permission to begin marketing the capsule that will be available later this year.

Yes, we have an Anthrax vaccine – Israel has recently completed development of an anthrax vaccine that would be more effective and safer than the vaccine in use in the United States. The vaccine was developed at the Nes Ziona Biological Institute over the course of nearly ten years at the cost of millions of dollars.

As the war against terrorism progresses, Israel may or may not be forced to flex its anti-toxin muscles when it comes to actively combating biological warfare in 2002. Here’s hoping that preventing anthrax is one solution that Israel will not need to deliver in the new year.