Fuad Fares: Druze hi-tech pioneer

Prof. Fares founded and directs the Department of Molecular Genetics at Haifa’s Carmel Medical Center.

Fuad Fares and his son, Basem, work together at the Technion Faculty of Medicine (photo credit: Courtesy)
Fuad Fares and his son, Basem, work together at the Technion Faculty of Medicine
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last October, I spoke to a gathering of Canadian university presidents in Ottawa. The focus of the meeting was “Inclusive Innovation” – how to integrate indigenous Canadians, known as First Nation or Inuit, immigrants and others often marginalized.
I argued that effective innovation was by definition inclusive, because the best ideas often come from outsiders – eccentrics, nerds, misfits, those who think differently and act differently. But I quickly realized that was pure sophistry. Israel’s vaunted hi-tech start-up industry is largely limited to a very small privileged sector, concentrated mostly in Tel Aviv, and is far from inclusive.
For this reason, I was happy to learn recently about Prof. Fuad Fares, a Druze biomedical scholar and entrepreneur from Hurfeish, a northern Galilee village, who has achieved stunning success and serves as a role model for his community.
Prof. Fares founded and directs the Department of Molecular Genetics at Haifa’s Carmel Medical Center, and is an associate professor in the Department of Human Biology at the University of Haifa and a senior lecturer at the Technion Faculty of Medicine.
Hurfeish, with a population of 6,231, is east of Nahariya, close to the Lebanese border. It dates back to pre-Crusader times. Almost all the inhabitants are Druze. Many serve with the Israel Police and IDF. There are some 130,000 Druze in Israel. The Druze religion branched off from Islam, and reveres Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law.
In an email exchange, Prof. Fares told me his unusual story.
Your journey to success as a scholar and entrepreneur has been remarkable. Can you please tell your story, in your own words, from your school days in Hurfeish to the April 24, 2013 announcement, that OPKO Health was acquiring Prolor Biotech for $480 million?
I grew up in Hurfeish, a Druze village in the Nnorth of Israel. At school, I showed excellence in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. After high school, I applied to study medicine and biology, and I was accepted by the Faculty of Biology at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.
During my studies, I worked as a research assistant in the laboratory of the late Prof. Robert Werman in the neurobiology department. Prof. Werman asked if I would like to continue my MSc studies in his laboratory.
At the same time, I contacted Prof. Joseph Brandes in the Technion Faculty of Medicine and I accepted his suggestion to be in involved in research related to breast and endometrial cancer. I decided to move to the Technion because the research topic was interesting and because it was close to my village.
I completed my MSc and continued directly to doctoral studies at the Department of Pharmacology, Technion Faculty of Medicine under the supervision of Prof. Moshe Gavish. During my studies, I married Samia Gadban. She is Druze from Hurfeish.
During my studies at the Technion, I heard about a four-year program for Medicine at Tel Aviv University. I applied and was accepted for this program. However, I made a key decision to continue working in medical research.
I finished my doctorate at the Technion and started looking for a post-doctorate fellowship in the US. I was accepted by three departments and I chose the Department of Molecular Biology and Pharmacology at Washington University, St. Louis under thr supervision of Prof. Irving Boime.
Moving from Hurfeish to the US with my wife and two kids wasn’t easy. However, after a few months my wife and kids started speaking English, my kids got used to their school and I started concentrating on my research.
I worked on genetic engineering of recombinant proteins and succeeded in developing a  new hormone for fertility that is in clinical use worldwide.
Three years later, I got a proposal from Carmel Medical Center in Haifa for a position to develop a Molecular Genetics Laboratory. I accepted and returned home to Israel. I equipped the laboratory that specialized in screening for genetic diseases among Israeli communities, including all religions.
During my work at the hospital I retained my interest in research. I was a senior lecturer at the Department of Pharmacology of the Faculty of Medicine in the Technion and taught pharmacogenetics to medical students. In parallel, I launched a start-up in the Technion’s bio-incubator, for designing long-acting recombinant proteins for clinical use. The company was supported by the Ministry of Science for three years, and then I hired Dr. Avri Havron as CEO.
Together we looked for further investment funds. Shai Novik joined the project and succeeded in finding US investors. The company moved from Haifa to the science park in Nes Ziona. In 2007 the company went public on Nasdaq and in 2010 was listed on the Tel Aviv exchange as well. Dr. Phillip Frost joined the company and in 2013, the company did an exit; it was acquired by OPKO Health, Miami, under the umbrella of Dr. Frost (Board chair of Teva Pharmaceuticals, 2010-2015).
In the press, you were once quoted as saying that you wanted to become a medical doctor, but the admission requirements were too high. Instead you decided to study biology – but you did not want to end up as a high school teacher. “I thought I could go farther,” you said. And you did indeed. What is the source of your motivation and aspiration, to go higher?
At first I really wanted to study medicine; I applied to the Technion and the Hebrew University School of Medicine to realize this dream. However I was accepted to study biology. When I finished my first degree in biology, it was hard to find a job other than to be a schoolteacher. Therefore I decided to continue in research.
I looked up many of your articles in Google Scholar. A lot of them are about long-lasting proteins. You achieved breakthroughs, by finding ways to make ‘good’ proteins (therapeutic ones) last longer in our bodies. What gave you the idea to research this topic? And how, and when, did you achieve the breakthrough (I believe, at Washington University, St. Louis)? Can you explain how you genetically modified proteins to make them longer-lasting?
This topic started at Washington University. The project was studying the structure and function of glycoproteins using genetic engineering methods (important for the immune system). Through this project we found out that a gene found in a hormone produced in the placenta during pregnancy is responsible for the half-life of the protein circulated in the blood. Then we combined this part of the gene with another hormone, FSH (follicle stimulating hormone), which plays a critical role in fertility, and we succeeded in proving this (long-lasting protein) concept. The results were promising and the Organon and Merck companies continued the project to the stage of clinical studies and later improvements, in the European Community, for clinical use.
You are the first Druze member of the Higher Education Committee. What is your vision for inclusive higher education, for Israel’s Druze, Arab and other minorities?
Through the Council of Higher Education, I realized that the number of minorities [in science and medicine] is low. I joined the Budget and Planning sub-committee in order to change this reality. Through the years, we saw that the number of students from the minorities has significantly increased. However we still need work in the Druze community because we have two difficulties. One is that religious women are not allowed to leave home, and the second is that Druze soldiers have difficulty in entering academe after they complete their IDF service.
Your DSc degree is from Technion’s Medical School. How did your Technion studies shape your career as a researcher – specifically, in taking on big challenges and finding creative solutions? Was there a particular professor who influenced you?
I think that I was successful in my studies at the Technion. As we know, studying at the Technion is a challenge. My supervisor, Prof. Moshe Gavish, and I published many papers together. Prof. Gavish pushed for publications and this was critical for our career as researchers. However, joining Washington University and the laboratory of Prof. Irving Boime, and studying molecular biology and genetic engineering methods and the success in developing new proteins changed my career.
You are listed as first inventor for the WIPO international patent application WO 2014/199379 AI for treating colorectal cancer (the second most important cause of cancer deaths) with an extract of dittrichia viscosa (sticky fleabane), a perennial weed that grows on hilltops and roadsides. I believe you have other potential drugs based on commonly found plants in the Galilee. What is the story behind fleabane? How did you come upon this? And what is the story behind the novel treatment for pancreatic cancer (a deadly killer), based on a mushroom-based compound found in the Carmel?
I am interested in cancer research in order to find new tools for early diagnosis and treatment of cancer. One of the projects that is running in my laboratory is the identification of natural products for the treatment of cancer. The research is based on two natural sources; medicinal plants and medicinal mushrooms.
We identified a species of medicinal mushroom and one plant that have an interesting effect in inducing cell death of cancer cells. These products inhibit the growth of induced tumors in animal models. Recently we identified the chemical structure of one of the compounds that is in synthesis now in order to develop it as a natural product for treating pancreatic and colorectal cancers. I founded a start-up, “CanCurX, Ltd.,” at the University of Haifa and we submitted three patents on this concept. Now we are looking for investment funds in order to proceed to clinical trials.
What research are you currently conducting that our readers may find interesting and significant?
I think that the treatment of genetic diseases, the genetics of cancer, personalized medicine, cancer prevention and new strategies for cancer treatment are of great interest.
What important message would you like to convey to our readers?
It does not matter where you start, no obstacles can stand in the way of your desire to move forward and reach achievements.
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com