Israel announces NIS 60 million investment in precision medicine research

Israel has an enormous relative advantage in this field due to the vast scope and high reliability of its databases.

A scientist prepares protein samples for analysis in a lab at the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton, Britain, July 15, 2013 (photo credit: STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS)
A scientist prepares protein samples for analysis in a lab at the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton, Britain, July 15, 2013
Fourteen multidisciplinary teams received a collective NIS 60 million in grants to enable the expansion and development of personalized precision medicine in Israel and facilitate breakthroughs in the field’s global scientific frontiers.
The first cohort of the Israel Precision Medicine Partnership (IPMP) was announced on Monday. The grants for the project are among the largest ever awarded to Israeli researchers by an Israeli body.
“All of these projects promote novel approaches to medical challenges,” said Prof. Benny Geiger, chairman of the Israel Science Foundation (ISF).
The research projects are meant to lead to a deeper understanding of human diseases and advance the implementation of new healthcare approaches. Teams are made up of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, including physicians, basic researchers, theoreticians, experimentalists, bioinformaticians, computer scientists, big-data specialists, engineers, statisticians, epidemiologists and others.
The 14 projects were selected by an international committee chaired by Prof. Roger Kornberg of Stanford University, a Nobel Prize laureate in Chemistry.
Kornberg assembled what he described as a “real dream panel” to evaluate the applications. He told The Jerusalem Post that he could not reveal the members of the panel, but only said that they came from many leading international institutions. Only one judge was Israeli, while the rest were from Europe and the United States – an effort, he said, to ensure that there was no bias in the selection of the projects.
“I think it is a testament to the quality of applications and the Israeli medical community that this panel, truly of the highest caliber, found 14 of the applications meritorious according to the highest standard for funding in this first round,” Kornberg said.
The overall IPMP budget, about NIS 210 million, will allow funding of four cycles of applications, and the duration of each project’s funding will be up to four years. The next funding application process will take place in September.
Kornberg said he will “manage the program from arms length.” On the ground, the IPMP program will be officially operated by the ISF, with funding from the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education, the Digital Israel Initiative of the Social Equality Ministry, Yad Hanadiv and the Boston-based Klarman Family Foundation.
Research in the field of precision medicine will be based on broad cooperation between various fields, while integrating scientific knowledge and medical knowledge, theories, in-depth analysis of medical big data and extensive experimental work, a release on the project explained. The research projects will have access to the unique databases of Israeli healthcare institutions, while protecting patient privacy.
Israel has an enormous relative advantage in this field due to the vast scope and high reliability of these databases.
The IPMP program focuses on achieving in-depth understanding of the mechanisms responsible for variable features of the same disease in different patients, and strives to advance innovative, groundbreaking research that will lead to in-depth understanding of human biology and the mechanisms underlying the patient-to-patient variability of human diseases, such as leukemia, breast cancer and Crohn's disease.
In addition, Kornberg explained, the hope is that the project will result in the development of large data sets that can be made available and shared with others who want to study them and derive medically relevant hypotheses.
“Israel is an excellent place for this because it is quite exceptional for the way in which medical records are assembled [and] maintained, and the information can be made available to researchers in Israel,” Kornberg said. “The goal of the program is first to benefit the Israeli medical community and public, but the discoveries that will doubtless be made will relate to health in general.
“This is not an academic exercise, though it is partly academic and meant for gaining understanding,” Kornberg continued, “it is a practical exercise for improving treatment.”
Among the grant recipients, for example, is a team of researchers from Hebrew University and Hadassah University Hospital - Ein Kerem. They received NIS 5.1 million to evaluate the risk of developing Type-2 diabetes based on DNA methylation signatures at key regulatory elements in peripheral whole blood. Methylation is the transfer of four atoms – one carbon and three hydrogen (CH3) – from one substance to another.
Another grant of NIS 5.2 million was given to researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Sheba Medical Center to study how to improve melanoma treatment with revolutionized immunotherapy and metabolic drugs in-vitro – in a controlled environment outside of a living organism – and in-vivo – in animals and people. The team hopes that through the development of single cell proteomic approaches and integration with single cell RNA-seq, it can obtain a comprehensive functional view of melanoma response.  
A two-person team from Tel Aviv University was granted NIS 5 million to develop a pioneering methodology to substantially improve diagnosis of two highly common infectious diseases: group A Streptococcal pharyngitis (strep throat) and influenza virus (the flu). Their methodology integrates big and rich data from mobile devices and medical records about three critical layers: the individual patient, the general population and the disease dynamics. Outcomes of the study, they believe, could lead to a breakthrough in the guidelines for detection of the two diseases, and to the establishment of a general framework for computerized decision-support systems for primary care physicians worldwide.
Sheba Medical Center professors were granted NIS 5.1 million for the development and application of an advanced analysis platform for MRI-based blood vessel characterization in tumor/benign breast tissues for personalized patient management.
And, a group with doctors and professors from the Technion and Rambam Healthcare Campus received NIS 3 million to examine methods for population-wide early diagnosis of cancer via cost-effective metabolomics of serum samples. Metabolomics is the large-scale study of small molecules within cells, biofluids, tissues and organisms.
These projects and nine others that were funded “were previously hard to imagine, even to dream of, in Israel,” said ISF’s Geiger. “The large number of worthy applications, along with the extensive, unprecedented cooperation between university researchers and physicians in hospitals and other healthcare organizations, demonstrate the vast potential of Israeli research to contribute to global knowledge in advanced medical fields and to improve the quality of Israeli healthcare.”
He told the Post that there was a striking number of physician applicants interested in research who had not had the conditions to perform research before. Now, with these teams, he expects a kind of “cultural transformation.”
“The expectation is that this will lead to a transformation in the field of precision medicine,” said Geiger. “I think this will increase dramatically the highest quality research, and we will see results in how we treat patients - not in 20 years, but sometime in the immediate future.”