50 Influential Jews: Disease Warriors - No. 45

Three Israeli women have risen to prominent leadership roles in the realms of science and medicine. Today, they continue to push forward with new medical and scientific advances.

 Dr. Gili Regev-Yochay, Prof. Michal Schwartz, and Prof. Polina Stepensky. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Gili Regev-Yochay, Prof. Michal Schwartz, and Prof. Polina Stepensky.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

In the realms of science and medicine, women frequently find themselves under-recognized in comparison to their male counterparts. Nevertheless, in Israel, these three remarkable women shine brightly within their respective domains. Over the past year, these dynamic scientists and healthcare experts have garnered well-deserved recognition for their outstanding achievements in their respective fields.

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Prof. Polina Stepensky

Head of Hadassah Medical Center’s Bone Marrow Transplant and Immunotherapy Department

Prof. Polina Stepensky is the brains behind an “unprecedented achievement” in the treatment of multiple myeloma cancer – the second-most common hematological disease. The innovative treatment uses genetic engineering technology called CAR-T, or Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-Cell Therapy, to boost patients’ own immune system to destroy the cancer. More than 90% of the 74 patients treated at Hadassah responded to the therapy after receiving the treatment. Before then, patients lived only a few years from diagnosis at most.

The CAR-T cell treatment was originally developed and produced by Hadassah in collaboration with Prof. Cyrille Cohen, head of the immunology and immunotherapy laboratory at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. It is being administered still on an experimental basis in Israel and soon will also be used in the United States.

Prof. Michal Schwartz

Professor of Neuroimmunology, Department of Brain Sciences, Weizmann Institute of Science

Prof. Michal Schwartz won the 2023 Israel Prize in Life Sciences award “for groundbreaking discoveries that led to a new understanding of the interactions between the immune system and the brain.” According to the EMET judges, “Her work opened new directions of research in neuroscience and shed light on incurable neurodegenerative diseases. Her discoveries include the key role played by immune system cells in repair processes within the central nervous system, the importance of the immune system to the functioning of the healthy brain and the link between the decline in immune system function and dementia.” Schwartz’s work, the committee explained, now forms the basis for the development of drugs to treat diseases of the central nervous system. 

Over two decades ago, Schwartz introduced her groundbreaking concept, challenging the prevailing beliefs of the era held by most brain researchers. Through meticulous research and unwavering dedication, Schwartz and her team conclusively validated their hypothesis. Today, the notion that the immune system plays a pivotal role in the brain’s operation, and is indispensable for its lifelong preservation and restoration, is now mainstream.

Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay

Director of the Sheba Pandemic Preparedness Research Institute (SPRI) and Head of the Infection Prevention & Control Unit

Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay became a household name in Israel and worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the last 12 months, she has helped spearhead a scientific collaboration between Sheba Medical Center and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to identify emerging disease threats in the region. The Sheba Pandemic Research Institute (SPRI) is a first-of-its-kind partnership between Israel and the NIH.

SPRI will focus on basic science and clinical research on emerging pathogens and the host response to develop biological countermeasures that would be deployable in a future pandemic. The institute will also work closely with Palestinian scientists. In a previous conversation, Regev-Yochay stressed the importance of fostering scientific cooperation on diseases that transverse geographic and political borders.