U.S.-based Genzyme enjoying health care symbiosis with Israel

Genzyme’s first product was aimed at Gaucher disease, named after French medical student Phillipe Gaucher.Genzyme, the first U.S. biotech company to set up a subsidiary in Israel, is demonstrating how binational relationships can benefit both sides. At first, it was …

Genzyme’s first product was aimed at Gaucher disease, named after French medical student Phillipe Gaucher.Genzyme, the first U.S. biotech company to set up a subsidiary in Israel, is demonstrating how binational relationships can benefit both sides.

At first, it was a very natural decision for Cambridge, Mass.-based Genzyme to open an office in Israel since the company’s primary product was aimed at treating Gaucher disease, which disproportionately affects Ashkenazi Jews. People with Gaucher disease may have lung, kidney, and digestive problems; bone problems, including growth retardation in children, joint pain, spontaneous fractures, and other serious symptoms.

In recent years the company’s involvement in Israel has continued to expand with new investments and research collaborations for drugs for other rare hereditary diseases and more recently for a new generation of cancer drugs, said Zeev Zelig, Genzyme International’s vice president and general manager.

Ten-year-old Genzyme Israel operates development initiatives from academic projects to clinical trials and is establishing a biotechnology incubator with the help of the Israeli government.

Following its success with drugs treating Gaucher disease, Genzyme Israel is now conducting clinical studies on drugs for treating both Pompeii and Fabry disease.

Pompeii is a rare genetic disease prevalent in Arabs that affects infants, often leading to death. Genzyme’s therapy is in Phase 1 clinical trials. Genzyme’s drug for Fabry Disease, a disease that affects the general population, is in Phase 4 trials being carried out as part of Genzyme International’s general clinical testing program.

The company is benefiting from working with top researchers at Israeli academic institutions. Collaborators include Mia Horowitz, of Tel Aviv University, a specialist in cell research and immunology, and the first to describe the defective Gaucher gene, and Gideon Bach, head of the genetics department at the Hadassah Hebrew University Hospital in Jerusalem.

Bach’s department integrated research and clinical work with Genzyme for treating a certain group of genetic diseases called lysosomal storage disorders.

“Today we are treating patients with the drugs we developed with Genzyme, a treatment that would not have been possible without Genzyme’s sponsorship,” Bach said.

Likewise, Horowitz said Genzyme’s support has been the lifeline for her research.

“Genzyme is acting as a foundation that contributes to basic research, whereby it gains important knowledge about the behavior of Gaucher disease. More companies should support their scientific community in this way,” Horowitz said.

In addition, Genzyme Israel is developing a project with the oncology department at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa for identifying new targets in cancer therapies.

“Genzyme has benefited greatly over the years from relationships developed in Israel with leading physicians and scientists in the Gaucher community, as well as from the entrepreneurial creativity of our own organization there,” said Jim Geraghty, the company’s vice president of international relations.

Geraghty said Genzyme plans on deepening its relationships with broader physician and patient groups in Israel, and with the Israeli biotech community in the years ahead.

So far, this activity is going according to plan. This summer Genzyme and the Israel-based Ofer Brothers Venture Capital Group won a tender from Israel’s Ministry of Industry and Trade to establish a government-supported biotechnology incubator.

This is the first time that Genzyme is investing in a local incubator anywhere, attesting to the good reputation that the Israeli life science industry has abroad. The company will access the cream of Israel’s startup crop, lending support through its medical, scientific and regulatory experience, Zelig said.

“Our involvement in Israel is more than promoting our own products,” said Zelig, who will hand pick two startups for the incubator in the areas of genetic and autoimmune diseases, and oncology.