Scientific innovations: Too many to count

The nation is one of the world's leaders in the per capita registration of US patents by its scientists, doctors and engineers.

aumann 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
aumann 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Lacking natural resources that bless various countries, Israel has had to depend on the brains of its citizens to produce a wealth of ideas and the resulting economic growth. The nation is one of the world's leaders in the per capita registration of US patents by its scientists, doctors and engineers and citations of their studies in articles published in scientific journals. During the last decade, Israel has been recognized around the world as a powerhouse in computer programming innovations, medicine, engineering and many other fields, which has led to the sales of start-up companies to foreign investors, publicity and prestige. Israeli scientific achievements are astonishing. Five years ago, Britain's Baroness Susan Greenfield - director of the Royal Institution, a peer in the House of Lords and one of the world's greatest brain researchers - said that Israel's scientific achievements are "absolutely mind-boggling." Nevertheless, the country can't rest on its laurels: One in 10 Israeli scientists has moved abroad, mostly to the US, because of the lack of well-paying and welcoming positions, research funds and well-equipped labs here. The Nobel Prizes that Israelis have received in chemistry (Prof. Avram Hershko and Prof. Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion-Israel Institute for Technology and Prof. Roger D. Kornberg of the Hebrew University), physics (Prof. David J. Gross), economics (Prof. Robert Aumann and Prof. Daniel Kahneman of the Hebrew University) are based on research conducted decades ago. Government budget cuts in funding scientific and medical research do not ensure that there will be more Israeli Nobel laureates in the future. Choosing the greatest Israeli discoveries and innovations in these fields during the last six decades is not an exact science, as those regarded as spectacular during the early years of the state have probably become obsolete in later decades. However, numerous advances stand the test of history. Transplants and medical firsts Doctors at the Hadassah University Medical Centers in Jerusalem were responsible for Israel's first double bypass surgery on the heart in 1964; its first successful kidney transplant in 1967; its first successful bone marrow transplant in 1977; its first baby produced by in-vitro fertilization in 1983 (just five years before, Drs. Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe produced the world's first IVF baby, Louise Brown); its first successful heart transplant in 1986; its first trauma unit and successful liver transplant in 1991; and the first successful heart-lung transplant a year later. In 2003, Hadassah researchers produced the world's first set of twins from frozen embryos and corrected a defective gene in cystic fibrosis patients. In 2004, the world's first computer-guided hip replacement was performed at Hadassah in Ein Kerem. One of the most important tumor suppressor genes, called p53, was cloned in 1983 by a scientist at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, and defective copies of this gene are found in more than half of all human cancers. A decade later, a leukemia patient in Italy was the world's first to be successfully treated using a method developed by Weizmann Prof. Yair Reisner for bone marrow transplants from mismatched donors. Early detection Just last year at Weizmann, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers cited Prof. Leo Sachs and colleagues for a 1956 scientific paper that led to the development of amniocentesis, in which amniotic fluid is removed from a woman's uterus to diagnose genetic problems in the developing fetus. And five years ago, a non-invasive diagnostic method based on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for detecting breast and prostate cancer developed by Weizmann's Prof. Hadassa Degani received FDA approval. In the 21st century, the pace of Hadassah advances has become more rapid, with the development of early diagnosis of "Mad Cow" bovine disease in Creutzfeldt Jakob genetic disease in humans with a urine test instead of an invasive brain biopsy; the first identification of a gene that causes inherited muscular dystrophy; the insertion of a revolutionary supportive metal in a coronary arteries to prevent a heart attack; and research showing that a vaccine can prevent the development of juvenile diabetes in young children. The following year, Hadassah doctors were the first in the world to identify a gene linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (and in 2005 they developed a simple blood test to predict who was at high risk to develop PTSD); and identified a protein that helped neutralized virulent streptococcal bacteria. Others showed in 2005 that human embryonic stem cells can improve the functioning of a rat with Parkinson's disease. Among some of the HU's more noteworthy scientific achievements and inventions in recent years include the development of drugs and treatments to combat Alzheimer's disease, cancer, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis. And last year, Tel Aviv University scientists discovered that bacteriophages break down the amyloid plaques in the brains of mice with Alzheimer's disease. Agriculture Other HU researchers have developed tasty, long-shelf-life tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, which are exported worldwide in the form of seeds and are among the leading varieties in several markets; drip and computer-controlled irrigation and water purification and reuse that are utilized around the world for economical plant cultivation and water conservation, and a non-chemical technique for controlling soil-borne plant diseases using solar power. Computer science Weizmann boasts numerous discoveries and innovations since 1954 when one of the world's earliest electronic computers, called WEIZAC, was designed and built on campus. Drugs The Hebrew University of Jerusalem - ranked today among the world's leading universities by the most prominent ranking surveys in the US, UK and China - is awarded about one-third of the competitive research grants in Israel, and its $100 million annual research budget is the largest in the country. Among some of the HU's more noteworthy scientific achievements and inventions in recent years include the development of drugs and treatments to combat Alzheimer's disease, cancer, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis. Copaxone, Israel's first locally developed drug and produced by a Weizmann team over 25 years, which minimizes the frequency and severity of multiple sclerosis in MS patients around the world, was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1993. Eight years ago, Weizmann Institute researcher Prof. Ada Yonath, in cooperation with colleagues at the Max Planck Institute, crystallized and deciphered the structure of the ribosome - the cell's protein factory. This milestone helped to clarify the exact mode of action of antibiotic drugs and may facilitate the development of improved antibiotics, particularly those acting against drug-resistant bacteria. At the Technion in Haifa, a main developer of a major medication is Prof. Moussa Yudim, whose rasagiline - a drug that boosts dopamine levels in the brain, is being marketed as Azilect by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries for the alleviation of Parkinson's disease. Tel Aviv University astronomers have made prominent discoveries as members of international teams. Cellular research The Technion has produced some of Israel's - and the world's - top experts on human embyonic stem cells, which will eventually be able to produce replacement tissue and organs for diseased ones in the body. Among the leading researchers are Prof. Joseph Itskovitz, Prof. Karl Skorecki, Dr. Lior Gepstein and Dr. Shulamit Levenberg. Hershko and Ciechanover received their chemistry Nobel for their many years of work discovering the "Ubiquitin System," which explains the mechanism involved in the breakdown of proteins in all cells. This discovery has not only led to the development of a drug for bone marrow cancer, but it has sparked worldwide study of the ubiquitin system and potential treatments for a wide variety of diseases. Astrophysics In 1957, Weizmann scientists participated in research that proved the existence of gluons - the particles responsible for the strongest force in nature that holds the nucleus of the atom together. Tel Aviv University astronomers have also made prominent discoveries as members of international teams. One such group discovered a planetary system around another star. Unlike the approximately 30 planetary systems found around other stars in the past decade, which are very different from our solar system, the new system is strikingly similar to ours in terms of the relative weights and distances of the planets. The Israeli data, obtained at Wise Observatory in Mitzpe Ramon, was critical to the discovery. Another team of 23 researchers led by an Italian astronomer and that included TAU astronomers discovered a new planet, Peg V392b, which has been identified as the oldest planet known so far in the universe. These are only some of the breakthrough discoveries made by Israelis in the last 60 years. Even those Israeli scientists who cannot claim world firsts can be proud of having added another brick to the wall of the understanding of how the world, the universe, the atom and the body work - which is the bit-by-bit way in which the world's scientific knowledge grows.