Q&A with Dr. Berta Strulovici
Director, Israel National Center for Personalized Medicine
Dr. Strulovici received her PhD from the Weizmann Institute in 1982 in the Department of Hormone Regulation and conducted postdoctoral research at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Duke University. She was Vice President of Basic Research at Merck Worldwide and for the last three years, was Founding Chief Technology Officer at a biotech startup called iPierian in the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the Weizmann Institute in the spring of 2012.
She immigrated to Israel in 1974 from Romania and moved to the U.S. in 1981. In April, she returned to Israel after 31 years to become Director of the INCPM. Her husband, Izu, previously worked for the Israel Aircraft Industry as a mechanical engineer. Their daughter, Orna, is a hand surgeon in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Their son, Alexander, is a medical student in Romania.
Welcome back to Israel. How does it feel to be here?
I came to the Weizmann Institute in 1976 and left for the States after receiving my PhD. Therefore my previous life in Israel is mostly associated with the Institute—so it’s very logical for me to return here; it feels like coming home. My parents live in Rehovot. I visited Israel a few times throughout the years, but now I’m noticing how dramatically Israel has changed. First of all, the roads—there is so much more infrastructure. It’s striking. Now I can get from Tel Aviv to Rehovot on highways, which wasn’t possible when I lived here before! And people are little less impatient; life is better.
You have forged an impressive track record in building and leading teams in the field of drug discovery. What have been the highlights?
All my previous roles have relevance to my new role at the INCPM. Early in my career, I worked in R&D at a company named Tularik, whose focus was the discovery and development of therapeutics based on the modulation of gene expression. Understanding that good science involves integrating multiple disciplines, I set up a diverse team responsible for the identification and validation of transcription factors as targets for drug discovery—drugs for inflammation, cancer, metabolic disorders, and infectious diseases.
At Merck [in Pennsylvania], I had the luxury and freedom to build my department in the way I liked, and the people I chose to work with me turned into the backbone of what became a Merck Center of Excellence for early drug discovery. At iPierian, we focused on creating disease models from patient-induced pluripotent stem cells, mainly for neurodegenerative diseases—a great example of personalized medicine.
Already here at Weizmann, I am receiving impressive resumes from around the world from scientists eager to get involved in the INCPM. It’s great to see because I do believe that the quality of the people is the most important facet of building a successful organization. I believe that a major side benefit of the INCPM will be to address Israel’s brain drain concerns by attracting young scientists back here.
How has being a Weizmann graduate helped your career?
Being a Weizmann alumnus helped my career in many ways. First and foremost, having graduated from the prestigious Weizmann Institute allowed me to be accepted to one of the most competitive academic labs in the world for my postdoc. Prof. Robert J. Lefkowitz, my postdoc advisor who received this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry, selected my application based on my PhD work here. As I built my career in the U.S. in biotech's and pharma environments, my CV was viewed as “stellar” based on my PhD at the Weizmann Institute, followed by my postdoc at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Durham, North Carolina. In the U.S., “where you went to school” is by far the most important criterion in receiving the best job opportunities and advancement. As a Weizmann alumnus, it was also a natural choice for me to return when the appropriate job opportunity arose at the Institute, enabling my return to Israel after so many years in the U.S.
My hope is that other Weizmann alumni from Israel and abroad will be interested to hear more about INCPM—and join us.
What is your vision for the INCPM?
It will be a collaboration hub. Scientists with specific questions will come to us; we will sit together and put their questions in a wider context, enabling bigger questions to be tackled and bigger experiments to be planned and executed. For instance, a question about the particular action of a specific protein will be put in the context of a gene or set of genes that control that protein, and of the disease or diseases related to that gene, and we will search for drug-like compounds that modulate the biological system. We can do this because advances in technology have allowed us to perform larger experiments, and faster, and more economically.
So, for instance, instead of simply investigating the actions of “protein X” involved in autism, we will have the huge data sets at our fingertips of a variety of genes involved in autism. In short, we can cast a wider net.
How will the INCPM advance the scientific discovery process?
Science is typically done by starting with a hypothesis, and then gathering data around that hypothesis. At the INCPM, scientists can get a lot of data up front and then formulate their hypothesis afterwards. It will also take the project-management aspect off scientists’ plates, and we will share the responsibility for moving towards drug discovery. After all, most research scientists have the investigative skills but haven’t necessarily been involved in translating their discoveries into therapies. My role is to say, “Let’s bring the team together and plan this from start to finish.”
At Stanford University, for instance, the research scientists are commercially savvy and also discover and publish. The discoveries emerging from Weizmann are tremendous, so why not invest more in translation into drugs?
How unique is INCPM?
All four institutes under the INCPM’s umbrella will be processing data in parallel, not in a fashion where once a “service” is completed, the baton is passed to the next expert. Many major universities in the U.S. have established these various units but as far as I am aware, no other institution has them all physically and administratively co-located—which is essential for innovation, cross-talk, more effective data integration, and tightening the timeline from the bench to the bedside.
What is your biggest challenge ahead?
To find the right way to take the free thinking of academia, which is essential to maintain, and channel it in a way that has greater discipline and certain goals, like finding a new molecular pathway in Alzheimer’s and identifying a new therapeutic entity for it.
Why is Israel a great place to do this work?
It is easier to access patient data in Israel, largely because there are just a few HMOs. Plus, it is a small country while at the same time, extraordinarily heterogeneous. The U.S. is diverse too, but it is so big and has so many HMOs that it’s a challenge to get patient data. Israel’s small size means that all major hospitals and research institutions are in close proximity to each other and to Weizmann, which enables true collaboration and momentum.
How will the INCPM’s success be measured?
I envision that there will be a more robust pipeline of breakthroughs for Yeda [Weizmann’s commercial arm] to license. I think scientists will take pride that something they discovered resulted in a “bigger” outcome than they originally expected. It will help Israel and make it a hub for drug discovery.