Dr. Marta Weinstock-Rosin, inventor of Exelon, a drug that improves memory and slows its decline in subjects with Alzheimer’s disease, is a big believer in the ability of medical science to help people live longer and better-quality lives. “It’s sad to see someone who is afflicted with a disease like Alzheimer’s,” Weinstock-Rosin told the Times of Israel. “On the other hand, Alzheimer’s is a modern phenomenon; 100 years ago you never saw people like that, because they all died of other diseases before the brain degenerated.”
And eventually, she believes, a preventive treatment will be found for Alzheimer’s and the other maladies of the brain, along with cancer, heart disease, and the other great medical challenges of the modern era. Exelon, the drug she created to treat Alzheimer’s, is just the beginning. “A young person today may live to see a time when Alzheimer’s and many of the other great challenges are preventable,” she said.
Rivastigmine, commercially known as Exelon, is one of the most important drugs to have emerged from Israeli medical research labs in recent years. In recognition of this fact, its chief developer, Weinstock-Rosin, was awarded the Israel Prize for Medicine last year for her work. In a further honor, Weinstock-Rosin was chosen this year to light of one of the twelve ceremonial torches that inaugurate Independence Day in Israel Wednesday night. The torches are usually lit by individuals who have made a significant contribution to Israeli life, with the theme this year focusing on individuals who have made “breakthrough innovations” in science, technology, business, and culture.
In many ways, Exelon, and its inventor, paved new paths in Israeli medicine, and Israeli society. Weinstock-Rosin, who is Orthodox, was born in Vienna and fled with her family to Britain in 1939, narrowly escaping from the Nazis. She came to Israel with her family in 1969, and became a professor at Hebrew University in 1981. In 1983, she became head of the Pharmacology department at the Hebrew University (now part of the Institute for Drug Research) in the Faculty of Medicine.
Weinstock-Rosin’s drug Rivastigmine was incorporated by Novartis into the Exelon Patch, the first and only FDA-approved skin patch for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, in which many researchers believe the cognitive decline results from a loss a brain neural transmitter called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is necessary for communication between nerve cells. Rivastigmine prevents the breakdown of acetylcholine by an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase. Weinstock-Rosin’s research showed that by so doing it can slow the progress of memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease.
As there currently is no cure for Alzheimer’s, Exelon is considered one of the more effective treatments for the disease. Used by patients either twice a day in capsules or once a day in patch form, Novartis sold more than $1 billion worth of Exelon in 2013.
Novartis acquired Exelon from the Hebrew University’s technology transfer company, Yissum, which since 1964 has established numerous companies based on research done by Hebrew U scientists, including road safety innovator Mobileye. Altogether, products based on Hebrew University technologies that have been commercialized by Yissum generate $2 billion in annual sales. Yissum has registered over 8,100 patents covering 2,300 inventions, has licensed out 700 technologies. Yissum-sourced start-ups have partnered with or been acquired by companies such as Syngenta, Monsanto, Roche, Novartis, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Intel, Teva and many others.
She was fortunate to be able to carry out her research in an academic setting, said Weinstock-Rosin. “Proper research takes time and commitment, that are often lacking at drug companies, while money is lacking in Universities.
Weinstock-Rosin’s current research involves a drug called Ladostigil, originally developed together with Prof. Moussa Youdim of the Technion and Teva pharmaceuticals to treat Alzheimers like rivastigmine. Weinstock-Rosin discovered that at a much lower dose it can prevent the deterioration of memory in aging rats by a different mechanism of action and may also be able to do this in mild cognitive impairment (MCI), an early stages of Alzheimer’s disease in humans. The drug is now undergoing a three-year Phase II clinical trial in Israel and Europe in subjects with MCI for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.
For doctors, researching diseases of the brain is the next great challenge, said Weinstock-Rosin. “We have done a great deal to keep people alive longer, but now we have to help them live better-quality lives by discovering ways to slow down or even prevent mental deterioration. What good will it be to live to be 150 but without mental faculties?”
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