The alumni e-newsletter profiles a different alumnus in every issue. For this issue, we write about Dr. David Aviezer, President and CEO of Protalix Biotherapeutics. Want to suggest to us an alumni with an interesting story to profile? Contact us at: email@example.com
Drs. David Aviezer and Yoseph Shaaltiel, two Weizmann Institute PhD graduates, together head Protalix Biotherapeutics, a biotechnology company working on a new way to produce recombinant enzymes for potential use as pharmaceutical drugs. Protalix developed a protein-expression system called ProCellEx®, which is unique in that it is based on plant cells—specifically, carrot and tobacco—rather than on bacteria, yeast or mammalian cells, the basis for most biological drugs.
The first drug Protalix developed, ELYELSO, for the treatment of Gaucher’s Disease, was recently approved by the FDA in the U.S., Israel’s Ministry of Health, and the Brazilian Ministry of Health and other agencies, offering an alternative to the mammalian cell produced drug currently on the market for the disease, which is sold by Genzyme. It is the first-ever plant-based recombinant pharmaceutical to win approval by the FDA.
For years, scientists have been working on transgenic plant models for protein expression. But engineering plant cells as the basis for industrial-scale drug production is new and innovative —and, says Dr. Aviezer, a logical outgrowth (no pun intended) of the multi-disciplinary nature of the Weizmann Institute culture in which he and Dr. Shaaltiel received their scientific education.
Dr. Shaaltiel founded the company as an incubator company in Kiryat Shmona, and in 2002 Dr. Aviezer, who also holds an MBA degree from Bar-Ilan University, joined him as Protalix’s President and CEO. Protalix Biotherapeutics is now based in the science park in Karmiel, with the protein-expression system at its core. ELYELSOן¤ is marketed worldwide by Pfizer, except for in Israel and Brazil where Protalix sells the drug directly.
When the duo first started to develop the enzyme to treat Gaucher’s, they turned to the Weizmann Institute to verify that their enzyme indeed had the same three-dimensional structure as the existing drug on the market for Gaucher’s, which is produced in mammalian cells by Genzyme. They approached Prof. Tony Futerman of the Department of Biological Chemistry and Prof. Joel Sussman of the Department of Structural Biology. Prof. Futerman—a world-leading expert in Gaucher’s who just discovered a major cellular pathway that triggers cell death and brain inflammation in the disease—and Prof. Sussman, a renowned expert in protein structure, got back to them with good news: Its structure is similar, suggesting the enzymes functioned just the same.
“Protalix is perhaps one of the most impressive biotech companies in Israel, and I’m sure the Gaucher’s drug is just the beginning,” says Prof. Futerman. “And it was started by two ‘kids’ from the Weizmann Institute, who had great ideas and good business sense.”
Gaucher’s is a relatively rare disease: Over 6,000 people worldwide are treated for the disease, and about 6,000 more are untreated. It is found in higher proportions among Ashkenazi Jews.
The disease is caused by a defect in the enzyme needed to break down a lipid called glucocerebroside. This results in lipid accumulation in various cells and organs, which prevents them from working properly. The most common subtype of the disease (Type 1) is characterized by, among other symptoms, swelling and enlargement of the spleen and liver and their dysfunction, along with lung and bone problems.
Treatment with existing drugs for Gaucher’s is very expensive, costing about $250,000 per person per year. ELYELSOן¤, says Dr. Aviezer, offers an alternative which is dramatically less expensive as it is based on plant cells which are more robust and sustainable than mammalian cells. It is also safer, he says, because mammalian-based drugs may potentially carry mammalian viruses, which a plant-based drug can’t.
“The ability to make proteins using this plant-based technology will hopefully serve as a breakthrough in the drug industry,” says Dr. Aviezer.
Protalix is currently also working on the production of enzymes for the treatment of Fabry disease—the drug is now in clinical trials—as well as for cystic fibrosis, pulmonary disorders, and immune and inflammatory diseases. Fabry disease is a rare genetic lysosomal storage disorder whose symptoms include the harmful accumulation of lipids in the cells of the kidneys, autonomic nervous system, and cardiovascular system that may lead to kidney failure and increased risk of heart attack and stroke; it affects more than 8,000 people globally.
During his studies at the Weizmann Institute, Dr. Aviezer was exposed to collaborations between academia and the biotechnology industry and became intrigued by the applicative side of science. “High-quality applied science is, first and foremost, founded on good basic science,” he says. At the Feinberg Graduate School, he was a recipient of the Clore Foundation award and of the John F. Kennedy Prize for PhD students, the School’s highest student honor. Protalix employs additional Weizmann Institute alumni in management positions, including Dr. Einat Brill-Almon, who serves as its senior vice president.
Protalix collaborates with various academic institutions worldwide, including in the north of Israel, as part of its vision of promoting science and technology in the Galilee.