Israelis join exclusive science club

'Scientific American' names 3 TAU researchers in top 50 innovators list.

neurochip 63 (photo credit: )
neurochip 63
(photo credit: )
Tel Aviv University has hit the jackpot, with three of its scientists included in the list of 50 of the world's leading innovators in the coming issue of one of the world's leading science magazines, Scientific American. Prof. Eshel Ben-Jacob of TAU's faculty of exact sciences and his research assistant Dr. Itay Baruchi were chosen for their innovative work in brain research and their success in creating a memory- and information-processing neurochip made of living neurons. Ben-Jacob told The Jerusalem Post he was very happy his and Baruchi's work was being recognized, especially since when he first sent an article on it for publication to the prestigious journal Nature along with recommendations from three Nobel Prize laureates, it was rejected on the grounds of "not being of general interest." However, last spring, it was published in the American Physical Society's journal Physical Review. Prof. Beka Solomon was selected for the development of a novel therapeutic approach in the form of an experimental nasal spray for treatment of Alzheimer's disease, based on friendly bacterial viruses that are able to overcome the drawbacks of other ongoing approaches. The Israeli edition of Scientific American, produced by ORT-Israel, is due to publish the list in February, but it isn't known whether the Arabic version published in Kuwait will choose to omit the Israeli achievement. This is the sixth year that the journal's board of editors has selected the 50 top innovators. No other Israelis were included in the 2008 list, and only two Israelis were previously on the list; they were Dr. Shulamit Levenberg of the Technion (2006), Prof. Ehud Shapira of the Weizmann Institute of Science (2006) and Prof. Micha Asher of the Hebrew University (2004). Each year, the board of editors reviews the work of individuals, teams, companies and other organizations with outstanding accomplishments in research, business or policymaking. The winners, who receive worldwide honor but no financial prize, are cited for their contributions to areas such as biotechnology, microelectronics, energy and genetics. Winners over the past several years have included former US vice president Al Gore (2006 Policy Leader of the Year); Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin (sharing the distinction of 2005 Business Leader of the Year); and Nobel prize-winning Rockefeller neurobiologist Prof. Roderick MacKinnon (2003 Research Leader of the Year). Ben-Jacob and Baruchi have succeeded in creating for the first time a neurochip made of living neuron networks that stores memory and processes information. Their scientific achievement presents a conceptual breakthrough in approaching learning brain processes and paves the way for a technological revolution of building robots that integrate computers and neurochips. Their experiment comprised local nanometric injections of a certain chemical onto a neuronal network they grew in a dish, with the injection sites determined through real-time analysis of the network activity. The chemical stimulation evoked a new firing pattern, which repeated again and again as a persisting memory. While some wonder if the brain is a fantastic computer, Ben-Jacob says it is not: "Computers have neither cognitive abilities nor the required plasticity - they are fixed." To plasticize a "computer brain," he hopes eventually to connect it to neural networks and create a biological computer that would be an evolvable system. Given a task, such a system would learn, evolve and improve itself via dialog between the computer and networks to perfect its task performance. The network will perform the cognitive part, of interaction with the environment, sound and picture recognition and decision-making. Baruchi thinks this is the key to technological advances such as handwriting recognition, on which Microsoft has been working intensively but with only partial success. The ability to imprint memory templates in artificial networks of brain cells could yield a variety of technologies. The team believes that in the foreseeable future, it may be possible to treat neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. Later, Ben-Jacob believes, stem cells could be added to neural networks and adapted to specific functions by applying appropriate stimuli. Even further ahead, he hopes it will be possible to treat epilepsy by feeding the disordered brain activity to a biological computer, which will analyze it, identify the faults and feed corrected patterns of electrical stimuli back into the sick brain. Solomon of TAU's life sciences faculty has targeted Alzheimer's, a degenerative brain disease causing progressive loss of memory and cognitive functions, the pathology of which is characterized primarily by extracellular plaques and intracellular neurofibrillary tangles. She and her team have developed a new therapeutic approach for Alzheimer's based on filamentous bacterial viruses (phages) that are friendly to the environment and to human beings. Bacteriophages are the most numerous life forms on earth. Mammalian organisms are frequently exposed to interactions with bacteriophages, and this natural contact is not incidental, but rather constant and intensive. Experiments conducted in mice models of Alzheimer's showed therapeutic benefits of phage treatment and demonstrated that the linear structure confers permeability to the brain and dissolves beta-amyloid plaques, thus restoring cognitive functions. The therapeutic potential of phage therapy stems from the fact that it does not affect mammalian cells and therefore results in no adverse effects. Moreover, phage therapy may overcome some of the drawbacks of current immunotherapy approaches, such as hemorrhages and inflammation. This is the first attempt to use filamentous bacterial viruses as a therapeutic agent for treatment of a mouse model of Alzheimer's disease and other degenerative brain diseases induced by accumulation of amyloid aggregates. As the world's population ages, dementia diseases like Alzheimer's threaten to reach epidemic proportions. Dr. Eitan Krein, the executive director of the Israeli edition of Scientific American, told the Post that his magazine had learned of the achievement three weeks ago and informed the three scientists last week. "It was only by chance that all three came from one university this year and that others were not represented," he said. "The board of editors sits all year and looks for discoveries that can bring about change in the world and have a significant potential and beneficial effect on our lives. Israeli scientists have much weight at Scientific American, and they are often asked to write full articles." The Israeli edition's editor, Dr. Eli Eisenberg, noted that Scientific American, founded 162 years ago, has received contributions from more than 120 Nobel laureates, including Albert Einstein, Francis Crick and Jonas Salk. "We... are very proud that three Israeli researchers were included in this prestigious list of leading figures in science and technology. This is an honor to Israel and to its academic community, proving once again that the most important resource of the State of Israel is its human capital." TAU president Prof. Zvi Galil congratulated the three and observed that their achievement advanced the university toward its goal of becoming the best university in Israel, on par with the world's leading universities.