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Stronger together

Weizmann collaborates with the world’s best


Date: March 24, 2019
Weizmann Magazine Vol. 15
International scientific conferences enable innovative ideas to take root and deepen ties.

International scientific conferences enable innovative ideas to take root and deepen ties.

When leading scientists partner with colleagues from academic and biomedical institutions around the world, each group can apply its distinctive strengths to make a collective impact on critical challenges that no individual, institution, or country can accomplish on its own.

Collaboration has a long pedigree at the Weizmann Institute. Beginning in the late 1950s, connections to Germany’s Max Planck Society led to a historic 1964 agreement whereby the Minerva Foundation for Research channeled German government funding to Weizmann Institute research projects—an initiative that set the stage for diplomatic relations between the two countries. A decades-long collaboration with the Pasteur Institute in France has borne much scientific fruit. Expanding on these and other established partnerships, the Weizmann Institute recently launched a series of new collaborative programs.

The Michigan-Israel bond

A new agreement is creating a framework for scientific and biomedical progress, by triangulating the strengths of the University of Michigan, the Technion, and the Weizmann Institute. The Michigan-Israel Partnership for Research and Education, launched in 2011, has already supported nearly 50 projects involving joint teams with representatives from each of these three institutions. Now, a magnanimous $20 million gift from the D. Dan and Betty Kahn Foundation of Detroit will expand the program and increase its impact, through grants supporting projects in two targeted areas: robotics and precision medicine.

“The success of my late father-in-law in the business world allowed him to be active in philanthropy, but he was always ‘Mr. Anonymous,’” says Larry Wolfe (see box on page 29), who took over management of the Foundation after the passing of Betty Kahn in 2004, and her husband D. Dan Kahn in 2012. “That we are lucky enough to have three great institutions working together is a tribute to him.” 

“Excellent science starts with getting researchers to talk with one another,” says Prof. Zvi Livneh of the Department of Biomolecular Sciences, who, in the earliest years of the program, headed the Weizmann committee charged with choosing projects for Kahn Foundation funding. “It is a reflection of the program’s impact that the Kahn Symposium—a meeting established in 2011 where researchers from all three institutions gather every 18 months—was attended by the University of Michigan's President.” 

The upcoming symposium—chaired by current head of the Institute’s coordinating committee, Prof. Avi Levy of the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences and Dean of the Faculty of Biochemistry—will take place on the Weizmann campus in late 2019.

California currents

Also recently, the Weizmann Institute signed a collaborative agreement with the California Institute of Technology. Made possible by a generous grant from Gerry Schwartz and Heather Reisman of Toronto, this initiative will support research projects in which Weizmann and Caltech investigators join forces for the advancement of all areas of science. 

Last year, Caltech hosted a symposium on the subject of new materials, featuring nine principal investigators from each institution. The Weizmann delegation was headed by Prof. Milko van der Boom of the Department of Organic Chemistry. The Weizmann Institute hosted a similar meeting, focusing on the intersection between systems biology and neuroscience. Chair of this symposium was Prof. Eitan Reuveny of the Institute’s Department of Biomolecular Sciences.

These developments enhance what was already a strong relationship. Projects linking Weizmann and Caltech scientists include investigations of condensed matter theory (a necessary step toward tomorrow’s quantum computers), and the creation of models that explain wind and weather patterns on Jupiter and Saturn. Also in the realm of astrophysics, Caltech and the Weizmann Institute have designed world-leading technologies capable of catching young supernovas—and other transient celestial events—in the act. Including ground-based optical surveys and satellite platforms for wide-field observation of the heavens, this Caltech-Weizmann collaboration is the most advanced of its kind.

Making Connections UK

In its 10 years of operation, the Making Connections UK program—a framework sponsored by Weizmann UK donors and spearheaded by Weizmann UK—has awarded $4.2 million in grants to 116 researchers from the Weizmann Institute and their partners at British research institutions, enabling the launch of more than 50 collaborative projects across all areas of science. 

Among the projects funded through the UK program is one led jointly by Prof. Jean-Paul Vincent, of London’s Francis Crick Institute, and the Weizmann Institute’s Prof. Benny Shilo of the Department of Molecular Genetics. 

“We like to think that science is a pure process, but we’re heavily influenced by culture,” Prof. Vincent says. “Exchanging ideas with people who have a slightly different cultural outlook, and who see things differently, is enough to produce progress that might not happen otherwise.”

The Shilo-Vincent project focuses on how signaling molecules guide tissue organization during embryonic development, and Prof. Shilo believes that the collaborative framework brought their research to a new and highly productive level. 

“The Making Connections UK grant provided a golden opportunity to combine the expertise found in our two labs, and move forward in a very powerful way,” he says. 

Forward to France

The success of Making Connections can be measured by the degree to which this UK program is emulated elsewhere. Now, the French Committee for the Weizmann Institute is preparing to solicit proposals for joint projects, with the goal of selecting 10 projects annually. 

“The launch of this initiative realizes the dream of the late Simone Veil, who, during her time as France's Minister of Health, founded an important collaboration between Institut Pasteur and the Weizmann Institute,” says David Weizmann, Director General of the French Committee. “Ms. Veil recognized the scientific potential of such a partnership, and also its symbolic value. In retrospect, that project became a model for countless other international collaborations undertaken by Weizmann Institute scientists.”

This initiative will add to exciting projects already linking Weizmann researchers to leading labs in France. A new collaboration is soon to be launched with Institut Marie Curie, a major research and clinical care enterprise focused on cancer. 

The Weizmann Institute’s Prof. Rotem Sorek of the Department of Molecular Genetics is partnering with Prof. Pascale Cossart of the Institut Pasteur to unravel the problem of antibiotic resistance. Prof. Elisha Moses from the Department of Physics of Complex Systems, an expert in experimental physics of the brain, actively collaborates with researchers from Université Paris Diderot on network analysis in the context of neural activity. And Prof. Victor Malka from the same department, who earned his PhD in atomic and plasma physics at École Polytechnique in Palaiseau, recently co-organized a conference to promote interactions among laser scientists from the Weizmann Institute, École Polytechnique, and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Both Prof. Moses and Prof. Samuel Safran, in the Department of Chemical and Biological Physics, work with counterparts at Institut Curie on a series of projects.

The MIT alliance

More than 40 years ago, professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology worked with Weizmann’s Prof. Adi Shamir of the Department of Computer Sciences and Applied Mathematics to develop RSA, the first public-key cryptosystem. In the 1980s, Prof. Shafi Goldwasser—who holds appointments at both institutions—joined Weizmann and MIT scientists in developing what is now the gold standard for enabling secure transactions on the Internet. And the Weizmann Institute also has a growing partnership with MIT’s Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines, particularly as Weizmann prepares for the launch of its Artificial Intelligence Center for Scientific Exploration. 

Now, thanks to a generous gift from Tova and Sami Sagol of Israel, the two institutions are embarking on yet another joint project. The new Weizmann-MIT program will select three collaborative research programs annually, and support each partnership over a period of three years. 

The gift was announced at MIT during the 2018 Global Gathering of the Weizmann Institute, which was held in Boston. “This gift will not only seed joint research between these two great institutions. I hope that this partnership will mark the beginning of a wider trend, in which Israel develops a deeper connection with Massachusetts—and when we’ve accomplished that, the sky’s the limit,” Mr. Sagol said at the event.

Collaborations in cancer research

As opposed to partnerships launched on the institutional level—top-down—some of the most exciting partnerships developed organically from activity in Weizmann labs. Such is the case with the pioneering work of Prof. Avigdor Scherz and the late Prof. Yoram Salomon, who created a revolutionary and highly successful approach to treating and curing certain types of cancer. 

Vascular Targeted Photodynamic Therapy, or VTP, involves Tookad®-Soluble (TS), an anti-cancer drug based on Prof. Scherz and Prof. Salomon’s research that activates when it encounters a certain wavelength of laser light. Shown to completely cure early-stage prostate cancer in a 90-minute outpatient procedure, the TS-VTP treatment protocol has achieved regulatory approval, and is now being tested in other tumor types. 

Today, Prof. Scherz is working with clinical colleagues at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, examining the use of TS-VTP to combat esophageal, urothelial and breast cancer, as well as with pancreatic cancer researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. The scientists are also investigating how modulation of the immune response, alongside TS-VTP therapy, may improve clinical outcomes. 

The MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas is another institution that—under the auspices of the Weizmann Institute’s flagship cancer research framework, the Moross Integrated Cancer Center—maintains a collaborative relationship with Weizmann researchers. Recent joint projects have focused on why some cancer patients acquire resistance to particular cancer drugs and therapeutic procedures, and have set forward new strategies for circumventing this resistance. 

Science and design Down Under

Diseases can be complex targets, with specific characteristics unique to certain organs and tissues, and symptoms that may change over the course of the patient’s lifetime. Cellular genomics provides a powerful way to manage the comprehensive set of data points that make up this big biological picture. 

In 2016, the Weizmann Institute established a new center for cellular genomics in partnership with Australia’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research. The new Garvan-Weizmann Centre for Cellular Genomics will help clarify how gene expression patterns of individual cells in the brain, the immune system, and other organs change over the course of a lifetime. This, in turn, will provide a dynamic “fingerprint” indicating how cancers, autoimmune diseases, and other conditions develop. 

The Garvan-Weizmann partnership is also advancing the art of effective science communication. Two Weizmann Institute doctoral students, both with a solid background in basic research, as well as proven excellence in art and design, were accepted to the inaugural Garvan-Weizmann training program in scientific animation—an emerging must-have skill needed to communicate scientific stories clearly and quickly to today’s digital audience.

After they complete the year-long training program in Australia, the participants will return to the Weizmann Institute, where they will collaborate with Weizmann faculty to produce accurate, compelling videos designed to help non-scientists understand and appreciate complex discoveries. This will not only help Weizmann scientists publicize their work, it will also build bridges to like-minded colleagues who will clamor to sign on to their next collaborative projects.

Michigan-Technion-Weizmann partnership fueled by the Kahn Foundation

The philanthropic journey culminating in the D. Dan and Betty Kahn Foundation’s establishment of the Michigan-Israel Partnership for Research and Education began in a hospital room. The tenderness with which doctors at the University of Michigan took care of his ailing wife inspired D. Dan Kahn to make a major gift to the University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center. Later, he would pair his admiration for the University of Michigan's clinical experts with another passion: support for science in the State of Israel.

“Dan moved to Michigan after his parents died when he was still a very young child,” says Larry Wolfe, Dan’s son-in-law, who manages the Kahn Foundation. “He was a self-made man, whose success in business allowed him to become quietly active in philanthropy.” 

Dan, who had never been religious, was inspired to strengthen his connection to Judaism after he met his wife, Betty. He became active in the Detroit Jewish community, and traveled to Israel as a tourist. He was so impressed with what he saw, particularly in Israel’s science and engineering community, that this became a turning point in his giving.  

“Dan realized that, by strengthening the connection between world-class institutions in Israel and the United States, he could set something in motion that would be really world-changing,” Wolfe says. In 2011, Dan established grants for joint research, as well as the Kahn Symposium, an academic summit held every 18 months, where investigators from the Weizmann Institute, the Technion, and the University of Michigan gather to share their findings about topics of scientific, industrial, and biomedical interest. 

Dan Kahn passed away soon after the inaugural Kahn Symposium, but his dream lives on. In tribute to his memory, the Foundation recently expanded the program with a magnanimous $20 million gift to support Weizmann-Technion-Michigan research related to robotics and precision medicine.

“There are tremendous, specific strengths in each of these institutions, and a common vision of what they want to accomplish moving forward,” Wolfe says. “This has gone well beyond Dan’s expectations, but not beyond his vision. I know if he could see where this project has gone, and where it’s going, he’d be kvelling.” 

Prof. Eitan Reuveny is supported by the David Barton Centre for Research on the Chemistry of Life, the Nella and Leon Benoziyo Center for Neurological Diseases, and The Schwartz/Reisman Collaborative Science Program. Prof. Reuveny is the incumbent of the Charles H. Hollenberg Professorial Chair.

Prof. Rotem Sorek is supported by the European Research Council, the Knell Family Center for Microbiology, and the David and Fela Shapell Family Foundation INCPM Fund for Preclinical Studies.

Prof. Avigdo Scherz is supported by the Lotte S. and Felix Bilgrey Memorial Fund, The Berdie and Irvin Cohen Weizmann Institute Research Fund, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Samuil and Petr Polsky Prostate Cancer Research Fund, the Lord and Lady Sharp of Grimsdyke, the Thompson Family Foundation, and Sharon Zuckerman.

“Exchanging ideas with people who have a slightly different cultural outlook, and who see things differently, is enough to produce progress that might not happen otherwise,” says Prof. Jean-Paul Vincent of the Francis Crick Institute.