Enemy of disease, friend of Israel

Oxford biochemist Prof. Raymond Dwek joins the British-Israeli effort to promote joint life sciences research.

raymond dwek 311 (photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
raymond dwek 311
(photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
Hearing an eminent scientist from Oxford – even a Jewish one – say “we” when referring to “Israel” or “Israelis” is an uncommon experience, as many British academics have been highly critical of Israel, and even advocate the launching of boycotts against Israeli institutions of higher learning.
But Prof. Raymond Allen Dwek – who coined the term “glycobiology” (the melding of biochemistry and carbohydrate chemistry) and launched it as a promising new field that could lead to a cure for many viral diseases – is such an exceptional man. “I’m identifying with you,” Dwek explains when asked about the “we.”
Vitriolic critics of Israel know Dwek is an advocate of the country, its people and its medical and scientific discoveries, although critical of some of its governments’ policies; for years, he has visited regularly as a scientific adviser to the president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Prof. Rivka Carmi, a noted geneticist and pediatrician. But given the great importance of his work and that of his institute, where nearly 90 young researchers are employed, Dwek cannot be ignored, just as Israel – a superstar in the field of new technological development – cannot be ignored.
He was at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem a few weeks ago to help inaugurate the new UK-Israel Life Sciences Council, initiated by new British ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould, who co-chairs it along with Dwek and Carmi.
Twelve of the members are British and the rest Israeli; four council members, including Technion Prof. Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and Weizmann Institute of Science Prof. Ada Yonath in Rehovot, are Nobel laureates.
With an initial £10 million budget over the next five years, the council decided that the first focus of research will be regenerative medical therapies, including the use of stem cells. Gould said he has already elicited interest from potential donors from both countries, including the Pears Foundation and the Zabludowicz Trust.
“THE UK and Israel are both global superpowers when it comes to science and research. We both have disproportionate numbers of Nobel Prize winners, and are home to some of the most important, groundbreaking research. So it makes sense that our scientific communities work together. It also sends a powerful signal about how our countries see each other, and about the sort of relationship we want. The British Government is opposed to boycotts of Israel, and this council is an expression of that.”
The inaugural meeting was hosted by academy president, Prof. Ruth Arnon, a world-renowned expert in immunology at the Weizmann Institute of Science.
Among the British members are Lord Robert Winston (an expert in IVF and fertility treatments, and one of Britain’s best-known scientific names); Prof Lorna Casselton (foreign Secretary and vice president of the Royal Society); Sir Adrian Smith (director-general for knowledge and innovation at the department for business, innovation and skills); and Sir Richard Sykes (former chairman of the major pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline).
Dwek gave The Jerusalem Post an interview during a break in the council sessions.
“Israel is a fantastic scientific partner for any country.
Why not have the best? You have a lot to offer, and will continue to do much to benefit mankind. At the same time as both countries benefit, we want to improve UKIsrael relationships,” he said. Joint research in regenerative medicine and other fields could have an almost immediate impact on health care, according to Dwek. “We want to do translational work so that joint research can be applied quickly in medical institutions in both countries.” Technology can improve the quality of life and bring peace, better water and healthcare, he said.
“My view is that there are some people in Britain who are anti-Israel, but none of their attempts led to a boycott. I intentionally go to speak about Israel to many different groups at Oxford and elsewhere; my message is that what Israel develops can help improve their lives. I went to Parliament to speak against the academic boycott effort. We have to get the message through that without Israeli technology – from amniocentesis to examine young fetuses in the uterus to endoscopy and Intel’s computer software advances – life would be the poorer. We need Israeli technology.”
He noted that The Economist recently published an article that “identified Israel as a superpower in technology. Of a list of the 12 top research grants awarded to institutions in Europe, Israel received three of them. Thus Israel is a fantastic research partner for any country. The openness of Israel is amazing; something in the air gets to you.”
Dwek once met the editor of the left-wing paper The Guardian. “He asked if I would write for him about my work in the Negev, including on that for the conservation of water. “I told him that I didn’t like reading his publication because of its bias. But he persuaded me, and when I wrote an article on Israel’s contributions to water technology, it elicited many emails – five percent terrible and the rest very positive.
He subsequently asked me to write another one on my work at BGU, and it also had a terrific response.”
AN ACADEMIC boycott would hurt science as well as Israeli-Arab academics and scientists, Dwek stressed.
“Those who support one do not understand Israel. But this is partly Israel’s fault, as its information work is pathetic.” The Oxford biochemist says he lectures regularly in Britain; some talks have been greeted by anti-Israel demonstrators.
“But I have gone out to speak to them and explain about Israel’s contributions to science and health. Some of them are intrigued and come in to hear me. I am even-handed. I want to help improve lives,” said Dwek.
“Hate is not rational. I don’t have time to hate people. I have a positive message. I tell demonstrators that I know of the work on the Sde Boker campus of BGU with the aim of getting more water to Palestinians, including those in Gaza. BGU has done wonderful work in outreach to Negev Beduin. You feel energy when you go to the BGU campus.”
He estimates that he spends “a day per week thinking about Israel and working on projects” he is involved with in this country. “It’s worth it. I can help create things here. Oxford has long had a “special relationship” with Israel, said Dwek, who first came here in 1969. There was a 10-year collaboration on antibodies between the British university and the Weizmann Institute. Then his interest shifted to BGU and the Negev. “I saw what could be achieved in the desert there. It is idealistic and true Zionism.”
Dwek, a Jew who regards the Bible as his hobby, speaks some Hebrew and can understand even more.
Some of this aptitude came from his studies at the defunct Carmel College – an elite Jewish “public” school; the rest comes from his reading of the Bible and his visits to Israel.
Now 69, Dwek studied chemistry at the University of Manchester in the early 1960s. He then went to Lincoln College, Oxford, where he completed his doctorate in physical chemistry. In 1969. he was invited to join Oxford’s biochemistry department, and five years later, he was elected an Royal Society Locke research fellow, working on antibodies. This led to his appointment as university lecturer in biochemistry at Exeter College in 1976. At the same time, he was appointed a lecturer in biochemistry at Trinity College.
Since 1988, Dwek has been director of the glycobiology institute at Oxford, and professor of glycobiology. The field that he founded is the study of the structure, biosynthesis and biology of saccharides (sugar chains or glycans) that are widely distributed in nature. Sugars or saccharides are fundamental building blocks of all living things and play various roles in biology. The Oxford English Dictionary accepted it in 1992, with a citation to Dwek, as a new word on the basis of his research, which brought about a much better understanding of the cellular and molecular biology of glycans.
Dwek and his team have been working for many years on a new class of antiviral drugs called iminosugars.
These work by altering the three-dimensional shape of the glycoproteins on a virus’s surface, which makes the virus noninfective. This led to an amazing “side discovery” by his team of another, different use for these iminosugars – as a drug for the most common of the genetic lipid storage diseases, called Gaucher’s. This drug was approved worldwide in 2003, and since then, Dwek states, not a single adverse event in any patient has been reported; this is a remarkable safety record, particularly as Dwek and his team want to use the drug again as an antiviral. Named Zavesca, the encapsulated iminosugar medication has become an alternate treatment to enzyme replacement therapy for Gaucher’s patients; it was also recently approved for treating another inherited metabolic disease called Neimann-Pick.
Dwek’s team also developed a liposome (an artificially prepared fat globule that can be filled with iminosugars – and other drugs – and used to deliver them to tissues and cells) for viral infections. These special liposomes penetrate cells and deprive them of the cholesterol that viruses need to survive, and also compete for the receptors on the cells by which the viruses enter, effectively also making the liposomes an “entry inhibitor” Dwek suggests that any virus coated with glycoproteins – such as HIV, dengue fever and many others – could be destroyed by these liposomes, which could also carry the Zavesca drug that his institute developed. Each of these viruses is dependent on its properly folded coat glycoproteins for its infectivity. Many viruses are covered with sugars. If the virus mutates, which they tend to do, his anti-viral drug will still work, he predicted, as the virus still needs its sugars to attain its correct three-dimensional shape. Clinical trials are due to begin this year for hepatitis C. In addition, his institute is working on an experimental antibody-based HIV vaccine. Here, Mother Nature herself has shown the way. A rare neutralizing antibody obtained from a patient recognizes clusters of sugars on the “immunologically silent” face of HIV.
The Oxford professor has long preferred to be connected to industry that can apply his discoveries (he holds over 70 patents). Already in 1988, he was the founding scientist and non-executive director of the spinoff Oxford GlycoSciences Plc, established to commercialize technologies arising from research at the glycobiology institute; a decade later, the company was publicly quoted on the London Stock Exchange.
Amazingly, this was the first spinoff from Oxford University in its 950-year history in which the university participated.
He has written numerous books on biochemistry and received a variety of awards and honorary degrees, including the Romanian Order of Merit; Dwek is an adviser to the president of Romania.
He is also a women’s advocate and recommended Carmi, who was dean of BGU’s Health Sciences Faculty (including its medical school). “She is fantastic for BGU; she has a real clinical mind. Israel needs people like her.” His own lab and department are chocked with women, and Dwek worked toward the goal that 52% of all committee members at all levels should be female. He made sure that a pregnant applicant, who was an outstanding scientist, was hired on the spot, even though he knew that she’d be away for months. “The emancipation of women and their contribution to science and medicine have been outstanding,” he said.