An opportunity for brain gain

Veteran scientists and young emigrants who want to return are the target for state investment through 30 multidisciplinary Israel Centers of Excellence.

YESHIVA UNIVERSITY student  works in a lab 370 (photo credit: courtesy Bar Ilan University)
YESHIVA UNIVERSITY student works in a lab 370
(photo credit: courtesy Bar Ilan University)
The announcement in recent years of Israeli winners of the Nobel Prize – so far in chemistry and economics – has often been bittersweet. Some of the native-born or immigrant laureates whom the country claims as “Israeli” left it long ago because they couldn’t find suitable research positions here early in their careers.
When asked to comment a few years ago about the emigration of a quarter of locally trained scientists and engineers, a senior Treasury official told The Jerusalem Post: “No problem! Just import scientific and medical knowhow from abroad.”
However, it doesn’t work that way.
To innovate and market their discoveries, Israelis have to do the developing themselves, not just adapt what others created.
This country has rested on its laurels, pointing to the disproportionately high number of Israel’s Nobel laureates and its reputation as a “start-up nation.” While the brain drain has been a part of Israeli science for decades, the cutting of research and development budgets in recent years has eroded the number of positions for scientists who would like to return.
However, there finally seems to be a glimmer of hope that emigration of scientists can be reversed.
The Israeli Centers for Research Excellence (I-CORE) program was initiated by the Council of Higher Education’s powerful Planning and Budgeting Committee and endorsed by the government in March, 2010. I-CORE aims at fundamentally strengthening the long-term position of Israel’s academic research and its stature among leading researchers here and abroad.
A center of excellence is an association of outstanding researchers in a specific field who are currently faculty members of different universities.
The aim is to carry out pioneering research together with promising younger scientists who strayed to other countries due to the lack of suitable local positions and serve as an anchor for shared infrastructure and research. Budgets cover salaries of veteran scientists, entice young researchers back to Israel and finance their research, as well as purchase advanced lab equipment.
The program established a “contact center” for Israeli emigrant researchers to help them return.
Over 2,000 researchers working abroad and interested in returning home are registered. About 200 scientists who returned have already been absorbed into academia during the past four years with help from the contact center.
In 2011, I-CORE began by focusing on the molecular basis of disease, cognitive science, computer science and alternative energy sources. Now it has begun to flower and expand to 30 centers of excellence encompassing an NIS 1 billion budget over five years. The new centers focus on distinct fields in the life sciences, exact sciences, social sciences, engineering, medicine, education and law.
Specifically, the latest centers of excellence are involved in gene regulation in complex human disease, cognitive sciences, astrophysics, solar fuels and the study of modern Jewish culture and Abrahamic religions.
The Israel Science Foundation, via international evaluation committees that examine the proposals on a competitive basis, is responsible for evaluation and assessment of the I-COREs’ work.
ONE OF the centers of excellence – on Gene Regulation in Complex Human Disease – recently held an all-day annual conference at the new auditorium at Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem to discuss their researchers’ work.
This center alone is facilitating the absorption of 15 Israel-trained scientists who did postgraduate training abroad and will now be returning to take up positions at academic institutes. Each scientist brings new ideas and approaches that will set the trend for future progress in understanding and treating complex diseases, according to biochemistry Prof. Howard (Chaim) Cedar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and genetics Prof. Karen Avraham of Tel Aviv University who attended the conference.
In disease, said Avraham, normal pathways of cellular and molecular interactions are changed and a new network logic molds the pathological composite of the organism’s observable characteristics typical of each disease.
By applying the same concepts of systems-level analysis used for understanding normal development, it has recently been possible to decipher the response pathways and learn about the fundamental defects underlying a variety of different diseases.
This approach, she continued, “has revealed new pathways in cancer that have been translated into promising drugs, provided insights on the pathogenesis of type-2 diabetes and is revolutionizing our understanding of infectious and immune diseases.”
Equally important, she said, is the ability to measure genetic variations among patients and combine this data with the responses of individual patients to therapeutic drugs. This could be applied toward integrating personalized medicine with routine medical care.
“Not only has the program brought in a significant and unprecedented amount of government funding, but it has generated an optimism and excitement about science in Israel unlike ever before.
I have been in Israel for almost 24 years, with a five-year break for a post-doc, and there is a positive outlook that we have not felt before. I am convinced the I-CORE program has been instrumental in bringing about this trend.”
Her own I-CORE in Gene Regulation and Complex Human Disease “has enabled a superb group of scientists, most of whom have worked separately previously, to join forces to change the way science is performed in Israel. We have crossed the boundaries of institutions, created equipment centers, training fellowships and most of all, are now part of a group of scientists who are working towards a common goal.
“The high percentage of young faculty in our group has provided an energy and talent that seems guaranteed to make a difference for Israeli biomedical science.”
This specific center of excellence is a consortium of both veteran and young scientists from HU, TAU, Bar-Ilan University, Hadassah-University Medical Center and Sheba Medical Center. Among the diseases they are tackling are cancer; metabolic disorders such as diabetes; infection and immunity; and aging and obesity.
Instead of keeping their own university resources to themselves, the joint teams share the genome centers at HU and Sheba, an imaging center at Hadassah, Bar-Ilan’s metabolic center and TAU’s proteomics center. The center of excellence is also giving a monthly seminar program, international conferences and public lectures to raise the general level of medical awareness.
“The Israel Science Foundation did the judging of applications for the centers,” said Cedar, the American- born recipient of the Israel Prize, the Wolf Prize in medicine, the EMET Prize for his work in cancer research and the Canadian Gairdner Award (with Prof. Aharon Razin). He has also been a member of the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities for a decade.
“The government is doing a very good job following up what the I-COREs do,” said Cedar. “We have a five-year budget of NIS 70 million, with contributions of onethird by the academic institutions.
[We] submitted a first-year report on our progress, and it underwent review. We have a whole string of collaborations. The results will be basic scientific discoveries that will lead to treatments and cures. Other centers come to us for advice about what we did. This unique structure unites scientists in various fields, brings back promising young scientists and gives them a professional home.”
PROF. NAHUM Sonenberg, an Israei-born microbiologist and biochemist at McGill University in Montreal, attended the conference.
He comes to Israel about twice a year and has a brother here.
“Most functions in the human body are carried out by proteins, which are made up of 20 amino acids,” he told the Post. The DNA decides what protein to produce.
There must be a control mechanism so not too much or too little of the protein is produced. I work a lot on control mechanisms in complex systems. Many diseases result from mutations, deletions or something environmental like cigarette smoke effects. Cancer results from defects in control, but drugs are being found to repair the mechanisms,” he said.
Just a year ago, Sonenberg and colleagues found a mouse model relating to autism. “We know only a few of the genes involved in autism, but there are many more.
We found that the mouse model has the same symptoms as in children.
The body produces too much protein that results in too much excitation. The mice then act repetitively, putting marbles under the bedding, for example. Too much can also cause epilepsy.” Sonenberg is developing drugs to treat cancer and autism that are in clinical trials.
“I get much intellectual and personal satisfaction from adding bricks to the wall of basic and applied science – from discovering something that was unknown for thousands of years. If there were more research money in Israel, there could be hundreds of original drugs like Copaxone and Rebif developed here and used around the world.”
Asked why he left the country, Sonenberg tells a familiar story. “I was born in Bat Yam, received a master’s degree at Tel Aviv University and a doctorate at the Weizmann Institute of Science. I did my post-doctoral work abroad, and when I tried to return, I couldn’t find a suitable research position. At McGill, I have 27 people working with me in my lab, which is unthinkable in Israel, even though the scientific brainpower here is the best in the world.”
Prof. Brenda Bass, a leading chemist at the University of Utah, had never come to Israel before she arrived to attend the I-CORE conference.
Her brother is a physician, but she never wanted to treat patients.
“MDs have to know a little about many things, but scientists know a lot about one thing. I preferred to work in the lab,” she admitted.
“Researchers have to have patience to work on something for a long time – and to know when to quit when you aren’t getting anywhere.
But I have sometimes restarted things that I had dropped.”
Even in the US, funding money is very hard to get, said Bass. “There isn’t enough to go around.” But Bass recently won a US National Institutes of Health “Pioneer Award” worth $2.5 million over five years. “I have to do something that’s completely new. Other funders regard this as very risky, because the work could flop – but it could also succeed. It’s commendable that the NIH recognizes the need.”
She is working on trying to block the inflammatory response in diseases such as type 2 diabetes using a protein called PKR that in mice mediates inflammation.
Prof. Sandra Wolin, a cell biologist and expert in molecular biophysics and biochemistry at the Yale University School of Medicine who also came to Jerusalem to hear about I-CORE’s progress, spends most of her time on the autoimmune disease of lupus erythematosus, which mostly affects women – about one in 1,000. It’s a rheumatic disease with similarities to Sjogren’s syndrome, which causes dry eyes and mouth and also is more common in women. No drugs were available for lupus until recently. She and her colleagues have worked on baker’s yeast, which serves as a model for studying RNA binding proteins called RO and LA. This seems to be relevant to autoimmune disease.
She was thrilled to be back in Israel, which she last saw as a child when her parents came a few months after the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. “There were almost no other tourists. This time, I have already been talking to Israeli scientists about doing collaborations,” she said.