Experts: Israel set to leap forward as a biotech leader

The best and brightest local developers of pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and more will be showing off their technology at BioMed 2012

Ruti Alon (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Ruti Alon (Photo credit: Courtesy)

If the ’90s was the decade of the dot-com boom, and the “aughts” (2000-2010) the decade of Web 2.0, the current decade is shaping up to be the biotech decade — and Israel is set to play a pivotal role in the medical revolution that is just beginning to bubble up to the surface.

Here’s just the latest example of how Israeli biotechnology is changing the medical landscape: Working with stem cells developed by Israel’s Pluristem Therapeutics, doctors at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital announced this week that they were able to significantly increase the number of red blood cells in a seven-year-old girl whose condition was rapidly deteriorating. The girl was suffering from aplastic bone marrow, which prevented her body from manufacturing new red blood cells to replace those that died due to activity.

“With her body rejecting all possible treatment — and with no other options — we finally turned to Pluristem’s PLX cells, which literally saved her life,” said the child’s physician, Professor Reuven Or, director of the Bone Marrow Transplantation, Cell Therapy and Transplantation Research Center at Hadassah. “The results of this unique case indicate that PLX cells may be effective in treating other diseases that affect the bone marrow.”

That Israel is one of the few places in the world where an experimental procedure like this could have even been attempted is due to the fact that Israel already has a well-developed stem cell research industry, said Ruti Alon, managing director of healthcare investments at Pitango Venture Capital, and chairperson of the Life Sciences division of the Israeli Advanced Technologies Organization (IATA). “For years, many countries, especially the United States, proceeded very slowly with stem cell research, while Israel continued with research,” she said. “As a result, Israeli companies are among the world’s most advanced in the field.”

Companies working on stem cell research, as well as many others doing advanced work in the biotech sphere, will be displaying their technology at this year’s BioMed 2012, which will take place in Tel Aviv on May 21-23. Many of these companies, Alon told The Times of Israel, are part of the “second wave” of Israeli biotech firms that have been doing research in their respective fields for the past seven to ten years. “In the past we saw companies doing more basic research, but now many of the biotech companies in Israel are working at advanced stages. Pharmaceuticals and other products that they have been working on are now in phase-two and -three clinical trials, and approval for market is closer than ever.” Drugs, procedures, and medical devices that are set to go to market in the coming years will turn Israel into one of the world’s leading biotech players, Alon added.

One of the purposes of the show, said Dr. Benny Zeevi, who leads Life Sciences investments at DFJ Tel Aviv Venture Partners, and is chairperson of BioMed 2012, is to display those new developments to potential partners and customers. “Patent expiration is becoming an issue for the large drug companies, and they are looking for new options. Hopefully they will find some of their new technologies and products in Israel.”

Just recently, the FDA approved a drug marketed by Pfizer, and developed by Israel’s Protalix, to treat Gaucher’s disease. That kind of partnership could be a model for multinational pharma companies to work with Israeli biotech start-ups, Zeevi added. “We have many disruptive technologies and innovative products, and the large pharma companies are searching for just those things.”

Panel discussions at the show will explore many of the hot-button issues in medicine and biotechnology, and 60 Israeli medical device and biopharma companies will be making presentations. “There will be discussions on research and development, the economic crisis, healthcare reform throughout the world, and new business models like telemed and delivering care remotely. We will also have a seminar on opportunities in China,” said Zeevi.

While Israeli companies developing pharmaceuticals are, in many cases, in advanced clinical trials, Israel’s medical device industry is where the action is at today. “The pharma side is moving forward,” said Alon. “We believe that many of those companies will succeed, either on their own or with partners. But the medical device industry here is very advanced, and has become very big and successful.”

Dozens of medical device companies will be attending the show, where some 6,000 visitors will see what they have to offer. “The show is a great opportunity for the Israeli biotech industry,” said Alon. “We have a lot to share with the world.”


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