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From Cancer to COVID: Lifesaving Science

Date: Sunday, January 3, 2021

The American Committee’s Mid-Atlantic Region and Regional Chair Pennie Abramson hosted a virtual event featuring three titans of the science world: Dr. Ravid Straussman of Weizmann’s Department of Molecular Cell Biology; his collaborator Dr. Daniel Douek of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH); and Dr. Alan I. Leshner, former head of numerous scientific organizations and a lifetime member of Weizmann’s International Board, who served as moderator. The conversation drew about 130 participants from across the country.

Dr. Douek, a celebrated immunologist who recently spent a sabbatical year in Dr. Straussman’s lab, spoke about the two scientists’ joint interest in vaccines and the microbiome—the army of microbes, mainly bacteria, that live in our bodies and play an important role in our health.

As Chief of the Human Immunology Section at the NIH Vaccine Research Center, Dr. Douek is working for his mentor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, on the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

Dr. Straussman provided an overview of his research, in which he seeks to understand the various mechanisms that enable cancer cells to resist therapy. In a groundbreaking study featured on the cover of the prestigious journal Science, he found that many cancer types have their own unique populations of bacteria living inside tumors cells. He discussed how this discovery could lead to the development of more effective cancer treatments.

Beyond the important implications of their research, the panelists also discussed their personal connections to the Weizmann Institute. At the age of 18, Dr. Douek, originally from London, spent a gap year at Weizmann, where he conducted T-cell research in the lab of Prof. Irun Cohen. “Weizmann changed my life,” Dr. Douek recalled. “There is a direct line between the year I spent at Weizmann and my talking to you here.” As his own career progressed, he always knew he wanted to return to Weizmann for a sabbatical. He finally made his goal a reality last year. Although he and Dr. Straussman have different fields of expertise—immunology and cancer, respectively—their mutual interest in the microbiome provided a point of intersection. “Danny is one of the best immunologists alive today,” said Dr. Straussman. “He helped bring our lab to a different level.”

As the two worked together on various projects, including the development of a therapeutic cancer vaccine, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. At both Weizmann and the NIH, scientists rapidly mobilized to fight the coronavirus. Asked how researchers were able to quickly pivot to address the virus, Dr. Douek suggested that this is part of scientists’ DNA: “They see a problem and think, ‘How can I help?’”

Dr. Straussman also noted the exceptional environment at Weizmann, where scientists are granted the tools and resources to pursue their research at the highest level. “When I joined the faculty, the dean told me, ‘My only role is to help you make your science as good as it can be,’” he recalled. This extraordinary support and freedom have empowered him to follow his curiosity and make revolutionary breakthroughs.

Dr. Douek echoed this sentiment, calling Weizmann “a very special place” whose mission is more relevant than ever. He added that the global fight against COVID-19 underscores the power of science to solve humanity’s greatest challenges: “If you’re going to bet on anything, bet on science.”