Dr. Merry Rubin Sherman
When Merry Sherman was a PhD student at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s, she attended a course by Prof. Aharon Katzir, a visiting professor from the Weizmann Institute.
In 2016, some 50 years later, she has established a professorial chair to memorialize the renowned scientist and his younger brother, Prof. Ephraim Katzir, a biophysicist and Israel’s fourth President. Dr. Sherman talked with Weizmann Magazine at the Global Gathering about her long relationship with the Katzir family and a lifetime devoted to science. She is currently the CEO of Mountain View Pharmaceuticals, Inc., in Menlo Park, California.
Q How did you get to know the Katzir brothers?
A I was mesmerized by Aharon’s course at Berkeley. His lectures were enchanting, even though his conclusion was sometimes just an equation. The course was on non-equilibrium thermodynamics - the physics of life itself - and he was writing a book on that subject, which he invited me to help him edit. Later, he became a co-author on the publication of some of my thesis research. It was on a topic in which he wasn’t involved, but he helped me approach the subject in an original and insightful way.
I was sufficiently inspired by him that when I finished my PhD in the summer of 1966, I came to the Weizmann Institute for my postdoctoral training in Aharon’s lab, where I worked on polymers [molecules comprised of repeated subunits, which have been critical for the later development of several longacting biologic drugs]. During my year at Weizmann, I got to know Ephraim Katzir, whose oldest child had tragically died a few months earlier. Ephraim and his wife, Nina, invited me to live with their family and to be a surrogate big sister to their two younger children. So I had the extraordinary privilege of having Aharon Katzir as my mentor and living with Ephraim Katzir’s family. At all hours of the day and night, brilliant scientists and students stopped by the house. It was a hub of intellectual activity.
Q Why did you stay in Israel during the Six Day War?
A My postdoc was nearly finished and the war was clearly imminent, but I felt committed to stay and was able to help Ephraim in his role as Chief Scientist of the Israel Defense Ministry. A few months later, I returned to the States for a second postdoctoral fellowship at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), but continued to collaborate with Aharon and published two more scientific reports with him. Then, on May 29, 1972, while I was working at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, I heard that there had been a terrorist incident at Lod Airport [now Ben Gurion Airport] and that a famous Israeli scientist was among the victims. I dreaded immediately that it was either Aharon or Ephraim. A phone call to Israel confirmed that Aharon had been killed, along with 25 others, by members of the Japanese Red Army, trained by Palestinian terrorists. I flew back to Israel for Aharon’s funeral with his daughter, Yael, who was studying at Berkeley, and Ephraim met us on the tarmac. I stayed at Ephraim’s home during the shiva, and everyone - generals, scientists, politicians - came by to share their memories of Aharon’s and Ephraim’s roles in the early years of Israel and of the Weizmann Institute. I remember that week as vividly as if it were last week.
Q How did your research result in a drug for gout?
A Although I didn’t return to Israel for the first 10 years after Aharon’s murder, I kept in touch with Ephraim and visited him often during the next three decades, until his death in 2009. My husband, Dr. Mark Saifer, and I and our colleagues developed a drug for gout, which is caused by the buildup of crystals of uric acid in the joints and tissues. In 1996, when I came to Israel to celebrate Ephraim’s 80th birthday, he introduced me to the company that, 20 years later, still produces the drug, Krystexxa® - Bio-Technology General (Israel) Ltd. Our drug is being manufactured in Israel because of Ephraim, and it was developed, in part, based on the knowledge that I gained so many years earlier working with Aharon. It consists of a novel polymercoupled enzyme called uricase.
In the U.S., about eight million people suffer from gout, of whom about three million are treated for it. Our drug is intended for use by about 50,000 people, who have the most severe form of the disease. It is an orphan drug with a niche market, but has life-altering effects on patients with the very worst disabilities. They comprise a few percent of treated gout patients who are unresponsive or allergic to allopurinol or the other oral drugs to which most gout patients respond. (The U.S. FDA approved Krystexxa® in 2010 and the European Medicines Agency approved it in 2013.)
Q Why did you establish a professorial chair?
A It is my way of thanking and honoring the Institute and two of its founding scientists. The Aharon and Ephraim Katzir Memorial Professorial Chair seemed like the best way for me to help preserve the memory of these great Israeli patriots and brilliant scientists. I am delighted that the first incumbent will be a woman (Prof. Michal Sharon of the Department of Biomolecular Sciences), and that her field of research would have intrigued Aharon and Ephraim. I look forward to hearing about the progress of her research in the years ahead, and to forging a friendship with her.
Following her fellowship at NIH, Dr. Sherman directed research in endocrine biochemistry at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She later served as a Professor of Biochemistry at Rutgers University in New Jersey before co-founding Mountain View Pharmaceuticals, Inc., in 1995. She is a co-inventor on 11 U.S. patents and more than 270 foreign patents. She has been an Institute supporter for more than 40 years, and serves on the Northern California Regional Board and the National Board of Directors of the American Committee. She was inducted into the President’s Circle at the Global Gathering on June 5.
Dr. Merry Sherman with the late Prof. Ephraim Katzir