Israel fund picks 14 research teams in NIS60m bid to boost personalized medicine

Israel Precision Medicine Partnership initiative finds fertile field in Israel; among the areas to be studied by the selected projects are deafness, cancer and diabetes

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Illustrative image of a scientist in a lab (anyaivanova; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image of a scientist in a lab (anyaivanova; iStock by Getty Images)

Fourteen multidisciplinary research teams have been chosen to receive grants totaling NIS 60 million ($16.6 million) to boost the field of precision medicine, an emerging medical approach in which treatments are tailored to meet the specific needs of patients and their illnesses.

Among the first cohort of projects selected by the Israel Precision Medicine Partnership (IPMP), an initiative set up to encourage researchers to venture into the field, are the study of deafness through genetic analysis; a cancer immunotherapy treatment; understanding the molecular basis for one of the most aggressive forms of blood cancer; and evaluating the risks of developing diabetes.

The IPMP, launched last year with a planned $60 million in funding over seven years, is a collaboration between the Israeli government, including the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education and the Digital Israel initiative of the Ministry of Social Equality, The Klarman Family Foundation in the US, and the Yad Hanadiv Foundation in Israel. The IPMP program is administered and operated by the Israel Science Foundation.

When the fund sent out the call for proposals last year, it expected to get some 30 to 50 applications, said Prof. Benjamin Geiger, chairman of the Academic Board of the Israel Science Foundation, in a phone interview on Wednesday. “We got well over 100,” he said. “We met a research community prepared for such initiatives.”

Prof. Benny Geiger speaking at the launch of the Israel Precision Medicine Partnership, March 19, 2018 (Moshe Shai)

“This indicated that a community with limited resources understood already that this style of research is an essential development and they were looking for suitable partners,” he said. “We realized immediately that we didn’t have to build the field, the field was actually there, waiting for resources to do the research properly.”

Traditionally, drugs are developed and targeted to the “average” patient. But with the cost of genetic sequencing dropping dramatically over the past 15 years, new ways are being developed to match the specific needs of patients. Personalized precision medicine is already being used in diagnosing, preventing, and treating a variety of diseases.

Israel is host to some 1,600 life sciences companies that employ more than 83,000 people, and the industry attracted a record $1.5 billion in 2018, up 25 percent year on year, according to a report released by Israel Advanced Technology Industries (IATI), the umbrella organization of the high-tech and life sciences industry in Israel, last week.

The nation is also seeking to become a leader in digital health, leveraging its prowess in software, artificial intelligence and big data to find innovative health solutions for the world.

Last year the government approved a National Digital Health plan to create a digital database of the country’s 9 million residents’ medical files and make them available to researchers and enterprises. Hospitals in Israel and HMOs have set up innovation centers to tap into the latest technologies.

A nurse uses a digital health app (Courtesy)

The common thread among the wide variety of the projects selected by the IPMP, said Geiger, was that they were deemed to have “very original ideas” in terms of what the researchers wanted to get out of the research, which was “in many cases unorthodox and unusual.”

All of the projects understand the importance of using and analyzing the data available for their work and they have a high proportion of physicians involved in their teams, showing a “unprecedented” level of cooperation.

“It is quite amazing,” he said, that physicians, while having to cope with patients and a dearth of hospital beds, in parallel are also thinking about the future of medicine and understanding the importance of being at the forefront of research for giving “good treatment based on scientific data.”

The 14 projects were selected after a comprehensive examination by an international expert committee headed by Nobel Prize laureate Prof. Roger Kornberg of Stanford University. The duration of each research project will be up to four years.

The research projects chosen for funding include a team of scientists from Tel Aviv University and the Chaim Sheba Medical Center that seeks to define the genetic pathways that govern the function of the ear and the variants that lead to deafness; another team, made up of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev scientists, is studying ways to combine immunotherapy treatments with metabolic drugs to find a better treatment for melanoma, a skin cancer.

Researchers at Hadassah Medical Center will work with biomedical engineers from the Technion to develop a protocol for predicting the risk of developing type 2 diabetes; and researchers at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center will work with peers from Bar-Ilan University to try and predict the risk of cardiovascular disease by studying personalized data, including of the microbiome, diet and lifestyle.

“Israel is at the forefront in the world in the field of digital technology, which offers us an opportunity to ensure that nobody is left behind,” said Gila Gamliel, the minister for social equality, in an email announcing the selected projects. “The research foundation which we have established is another move in this critical revolution utilizing digital health as Israel’s latest growth engine both for individual citizens and the economy at large. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this landmark project which integrates both the academic world and the health system in creating life-saving breakthroughs.”

In September 2019 the next call for proposals will be issued for the second of four planned submission cycles, the statement said.

(Full disclosure: The Klarman Foundation’s Seth Klarman is the chairman and capital partner of The Times of Israel.)

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