Johnson & Johnson looks to the future with Israeli science

The research of Professor Hermona Soreq on an accurate, objective method of diagnosing anxiety disorders based on the body’s regulation of acetylcholine was presented to the J&J team.American healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson has decided to cast an enormous vote …

The research of Professor Hermona Soreq on an accurate, objective method of diagnosing anxiety disorders based on the body’s regulation of acetylcholine was presented to the J&J team.American healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson has decided to cast an enormous vote of confidence in the innovative science coming out of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University by investing in its future.

A team of top J&J executives visited the university last month to launch a unique fund and to begin the process of deciding exactly where they are going to invest their company’s money.

“We were attracted by the outstanding research and researchers here,” David M. Bowser, J&J Vice President, Corporate Office of Science and Technology, told ISRAEL21c during a seminar at HU. He described J&J’s initiative as “a small seed” at this stage with the potential to “grow into a long-term partnership.”

In dollar terms, this “seed” is in six figures, though both J&J and the Hebrew University were coy in naming the actual sum. J&J’s contribution to the fund will be matched by the Hebrew University and its technological transfer company Yissum.

The seminar – a showcase of the university’s top academics presenting the J&J team their cutting-edge research – was a typically informal Israeli affair. Held around a slightly cramped table, the crisp white-tablecloth laden with plates of smoked salmon rolls, luscious cheesecakes, fruits and rich chocolate brownies created a convivial atmosphere more reminiscent of a birthday celebration. But the scientific research presented by five of the university’s most senior researchers was more mouth-watering than the food.

The menu of scientific treats began with the latest developments in bionanotechnology. Israeli researchers are world leaders in this field and are even responsible for naming it. Their innovative integration of nanoparticles with biomolecules has produced hybridized systems with unique electronic and optical properties.

More presentations followed: Professor Itamar Willner gave the visitors a fascinating glimpse into the future of self-replicating DNA machines as diagnostic tools; Professor Hermona Soreq, Dean of the Faculty of Science, presented her team’s work on an accurate, objective method of diagnosing anxiety disorders based on the body’s regulation of acetylcholine; and Professor Howard Cedar of the Department of Cellular Biochemistry and Human Genetics gave fascinating insights into new discoveries of the universal changes in the structure of the DNA in all types of cancer cells.

Participants at the seminar were also given a brief presentation by Professor Oded Shoyseyov of the university’s new Center for Converging Science and Technologies, founded last year to bring together researchers from a diverse range of academic fields – not only scientists but also researchers in the arts and humanities. The cross-fertilization of ideas and exchange of knowledge is seen to be a rich resource for innovative scientific collaboration.

One example is a project that began in the Department of Agriculture with the discovery of a new plant protein with a ring structure; for them the identification of this protein was part of their work to understand the chemistry behind the survival mechanism of a desert plant. Now in the hands of nanotechnologists, it has become the framework of a structure for integrating gold nanoparticles within the center of the protein rings. This hybrid two-dimensional array could be used for building electronic devices of the future.

Finally, there was a presentation from the university’s Vice President for R&D, Professor Hillel Bercovier. He spoke about his team’s new research on a peptide with proven success for treating inflammation disorders such as allergic asthma and colitis. They have also demonstrated that the peptide has potential role in the diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis. The research so far has only been conducted on mice but, as with all the projects presented, they are poised for the next stage of development, which could launch revolutionary new science into our lives.

Altogether about seventeen different Hebrew University projects have been submitted to J&J for selection, a process that will take up to six months. And although the company’s funding is without intellectual property rights or commitments, the company is “looking for research that is consistent with our strategy to transform healthcare” so that the two teams can work together in fields with different expertise but similar focus.

Dr Harlan F. Weisman, Chief Science and Technology Officer of J&J’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics Division, described the relationship as “push-pull,” explaining, “these guys are pushing the science and if we put them next to our guys who are pulling the science… the result will be synergistic. We are going to have a lot of fun.”