Technology is revolutionizing healthcare. These women are leading the way

"The Healers" panel at the Women Leaders Summit, brought together women scientists and researchers from the fields of Neurology, Genetics and Brain Sciences.

Technology is revolutionizing healthcare. These women are leading the way

As a young girl, Prof. Polina Stepensky had always dreamed of becoming a doctor. However, when she moved to Israel from Ukraine, many told her that only “geniuses” can become doctors.

“I told myself that I could still help patients by becoming a nurse because it's a fantastic profession,” Stepensky shared, speaking at the Women Leaders Summit in Tel Aviv organized by The Jerusalem Post group on Wednesday.

Titled “The Healers,” the panel also featured Dr. Yael Marantz, VP Nonclinical Development at Teva Pharmaceuticals, and two EMET Prize winners, Prof. Ephrat Levy-Lahad, Director of the Medical Genetics Institute at Shaare Zedek Medical Center and Prof. Michal Schwartz, Professor of Neuroimmunology at the Department of Brain Sciences of the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Prof. Polina Stepensky, Director of the Hadassah Medical Organization’s Department of Bone Marrow Transplantation and Immunotherapy for Adults and Children (Credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Prof. Polina Stepensky, Director of the Hadassah Medical Organization’s Department of Bone Marrow Transplantation and Immunotherapy for Adults and Children (Credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

After a few years working as a nurse, however, Stepensky’s passion for research inspired her to sit the test to enter medical school. She passed. Today, she is the Head of the Bone Marrow Transplant and Immunotherapy Department at Hadassah Hospital, offering CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) T-cell therapy for cancer patients. The treatment involves altering the genes inside specific immune cells so that they can identify and destroy cancer. The therapy is available only in two other countries in the world (the US and China), and, as Stepensky stressed, it has been yielding amazing results.

“We treated 65 patients and we saw an overall response rate of more than 90%, and most of them were already after all kinds of therapies and not considered salvageable,” she said. “It's really exciting to see these patients and to see how the tumor is going away.”

Gene editing is only one of the many developments that are changing the world of healthcare.

As highlighted by Marantz, many innovative drugs and treatments are making a difference, and Teva is developing these medications and therapies alongside its focus on generics and biosimilars. In Israel Teva currently has 30 collaborations with the academia in order to identify new drugs and technologies.

“We use artificial intelligence and all kinds of technologies to develop those drugs,” she said.

Marantz explained that the innovative approach covers all stages of development.

“It starts from clinical trials when we put wearables on to monitor the patients,” she remarked. “It includes the period before clinical trials, when for example we try to understand the toxicity of a new drug by using an organ on a chip. It can go back even further, to the initial stage of the research.”

Marantz pointed that for this purpose, Teva has joined forces with other leading global pharmaceutical companies as well as with the Israel Biotech Fund and the Innovation Authority to create AION Labs. The initiative aims to solve different challenges in drug development through AI, including inventing new antibodies.

While innovation is crucial, Marantz also highlighted the importance that Teva places on producing generic drugs, that are saving hundreds of thousands of lives across the world.

“We are treating about 200 million patients a day, in 60 different countries by giving them affordable drugs,” she said, adding that a recent independent survey conducted in 14 of those countries found that this is saving them a total of $43 billion “which hopefully can also be used to bring innovative drugs to their patients.”

According to Levy-Lahad, in order to pursue new effective treatments, one of the key factors is encouraging physicians to carry out research.

“I think there is a really special place for research carried out by physicians because we're closer to the clinical questions,” she said before sharing her very personal experience related to the BRCA genes.

The BRCA genes are a gene whose specific variants increase the risk of developing several cancers at a young age for those who carry them.

“I started seeing patients in the late 90s and I would see these young women with breast cancer because they had a genetic mutation they were born with,” she recalled. “I asked myself why I was sitting in front of a young woman with cancer, whom had she known earlier she was at risk, she could have prevented the whole thing.”

Levy-Lahad explained that this first realization led to several studies on the issue, especially focusing on the effectiveness of testing as a tool to detect the variant and prevent its negative consequences.

“This really culminated last year in the fact that now the BRCA test is free for every Ashkenazi woman in the country, even for those who have partial Ashkenazi ancestry,” she said.

In light of her research, in 2018 Levy-Lahad was awarded the EMET Prize, which is given every year to Israelis who have distinguished themselves for excellence in academic and professional achievements with far-reaching influence and significant contribution to society. 

The following year, the prize was awarded to Schwartz, a pioneer in breaking a long-held dogma regarding the brain and its relationship with the immune system, offering the hope to develop a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

“My therapeutic approach is an example of scientific research that started by curiosity that led to a paradigm shift-based therapy,” she said. “For decades, the brain was considered an organ completely isolated from the blood. As a result, it was axiomatically believed that the brain could not tolerate any immune activity.”

Schwartz recalled how 25 years ago, she and her team challenged this assumption.

“As a scientist, as a woman in Israel it was not easy,” she remarked. “It took me several years but slowly we understood, unlike the prevailing dogma, that the brain needs a healthy immune system for its daily function and repair. We understood that Alzheimer is not just a disease of the brain, but it also encompasses the immune system that dysfunctions with aging. In other words, we understood that the aging of the immune system contributes to disease escalation.”

Based on this outcome, Schwartz and her team began developing a treatment aimed at “rejuvenating” the immune system, to help the brain fight against the disease.

“The intellectual property was licensed by the Weitzman Institute to a startup biopharma, which lately initiated a clinical trial in five centers in Israel, three centers in the UK and two centers in Amsterdam,” she said.

If all goes well, according to the scientist, based on the understanding of the mechanism of action, the treatment has the potential to tackle several factors that contribute to the escalation of Alzheimer.

“This will turn a devastating disease that is currently not treatable to a treatable chronic condition,” Schwartz said.

Sending a message to the younger generation of women, the professor said that they should not be afraid to pursue their goals.

“If you believe in what you are doing, don't be afraid, keep going against all the scoffers, stick to your goals, everything that you need is hard work, passion, and persistence,” she said.

Prof. Dorit Nitzan, director of Masters Program in Emergency Medicine at the School of Public Health, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, also spoke during the Women Leaders Summit.

Nitzan discussed the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to healthcare, specifically in the field of monitoring diseases that can pass from animals to humans.

“I'm a pediatrician by profession and I was a nutritionist, so I'm coming from the human side of the equation, but I'm working with veterinarians, with engineers, and with people that are touching the animals, the plants, the environment,” she said. “I see that we are all really eager to work together.”