BGU, PayPal form partnership in cybersecurity research

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and PayPal have announced a new partnership to conduct joint research and development in the fields of big data, machine learning and cybersecurity. It is the first such collaboration between PayPal and an Israeli university.

“This partnership will allow PayPal to leverage BGU’s top-notch researchers and years of groundbreaking research,” said Matan Parnes, PayPal’s general manager in Israel.

PayPal’s involvement in big data and machine learning technology has been supported by its significant research and development (R&D) activity in Israel, starting with the acquisition of Fraud Sciences in 2008 and the establishment of a global risk and data sciences R&D center in Tel Aviv. In 2015, PayPal acquired Israeli startup CyActive, resulting in the establishment of a global security products center in Beersheva’s Advanced Technologies Park, adjacent to BGU.

“The collaboration with BGU will further strengthen PayPal’s global leadership in the use of machine learning and big data for cybersecurity, fraud detection and risk management, allowing us to continue to offer the most cutting-edge technologies that enable safe payments to more than 192 million customers worldwide,” Parnes said.

“We are eager to extend our relationship with PayPal and help them safeguard the privacy of their hundreds of millions of clients. BGU is a recognized global leader in cybersecurity, big data and machine learning research and we look forward to putting that expertise to work to meet the unique challenges posed by PayPal’s needs,” said Dan Blumberg, BGU vice president and dean for R&D.

The 2015 Global Technology Emerging Markets study named Beersheva one of seven top cities for high-tech and innovation. 

“Beersheva has become a global cybersecurity hub in recent years, attracting major multinational corporations,” said Netta Cohen, CEO of BGN Technologies, the technology transfer company of BGU. “PayPal’s presence there allows it to tap into this eco-system’s cutting-edge technology and top talent.”

The new agreement extends the ongoing relationship between PayPal and BGU who already co-operate in training, talent development and recruitment.

Desert University is an oasis for medical research

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) is Israel’s only university not found in the northern part of the country. This geographic anomaly, however, has not prevented the 46-year-old institution from excelling: BGU was ranked 30th in the 2014-15 QS World University Rankings’ “Top 50 Under 50.” The university is also collaborating with the Israeli government, the city of Beersheba and private industry to turn this desert region into a global cybersecurity and technology capital. 

One of the university’s established strengths is medical research and technology. As one of nine journalists who recently visited BGU during an American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev-sponsored media mission, this reporter got a look at some of the innovative research happening in the field of medicine. 

If David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, could meet the researchers at his namesake university, he would probably see in them the pioneering spirit he embodied. As the statesman once said, “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.”

Helping the body rebuild itself 

Smadar Cohen, founder and director of BGU’s Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research Center, and her colleagues have developed a gel-like substance made from seaweed that helps support regrowth of body tissues. They are using it to reduce damage to heart tissue after a heart attack. When the substance is injected into the heart after a heart attack, it forms a sort of temporary matrix that supports the injured heart tissue and prevents the loss of function that normally occurs. 

Emil Ruvinov from Cohen’s lab explained that the substance is injected in liquid form, but thickens in the heart and seems to strengthen the area and stabilize heart function. Within about two months, it dissolves and is naturally excreted from the body.

Also applying the idea of creating a matrix to promote the body’s natural processes is Hanna Rapaport in the department of biotechnology and engineering. She is using small proteins called peptides to help bones regenerate. 

Rapaport, who did her postdoctoral training at Caltech, is combining peptides that can absorb calcium with ones that can form fibers to create an environment where bone tissue can regrow. She has also created a coating that can help integrate metal bone implants with the natural bone tissue around it. This could potentially promote more successful joint replacements.

Detecting brain trauma in athletes

Even the National Football League (NFL) has acknowledged that frequent, forceful blows to the head can cause serious brain damage to players. Actuaries hired by the NFL estimated that nearly one-third of retired players would develop long-term cognitive problems. 

Dr. Alon Friedman of the Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience at BGU has found that even some amateur football players show signs of brain injury, likely stemming from the constant and repeated small impacts they experience. Friedman and his team have detected damage to the blood-brain barrier, the body’s protective mechanism for preventing most substances in the bloodstream from entering the brain and spinal cord. 

Itai Weissberg, one of Friedman’s doctoral students, explained how their novel use of MRI created “a window into the brain” to reveal damage by showing whether an injected dye dissipates or accumulates in the brain. “This tool can detect very small but important changes,” he said.

Weissberg said they would eventually like to see such diagnostic tests become part of an athlete’s regular exam, as well as a way of determining when an injured player is ready to return to the field.

Unplugging sleep analysis

An estimated 50 million to 70 million Americans have a sleep disorder, which poses two problems. First, many of them are unaware of their condition (although their sleeping partner may be painfully aware of it). Second, getting a diagnosis currently requires an expensive and not terribly convenient night hooked up to wires for a polysomnography test, which measures brain, heart and muscle activity.

Yaniv Zigel, head of the biomedical signal processing lab at BGU; Ariel Tarasiuk, professor of physiology and cell biology; and Eliran Dafna, who conducted research as part of his doctorate, have developed what they hope will be an easier, less invasive way to detect sleep problems such as sleep apnea, snoring and insomnia. 

Their breathing sound analysis algorithm analyzes a sleeper’s breathing sounds to measure sleep duration and detect sleep disorders. The sounds can be collected using a simple recorder, and thus don’t require any sensors or wires. Eventually, they hope to make the technology available via a smartphone app. 

Using nature to design robots

David Zarrouk, director of the Bioinspired and Medical Robotics Laboratory, believes that nature can provide inspiration for designing the most effective and energy-efficient robots. His lab focuses on robotic applications for medical, agricultural and search-and-rescue purposes. 

Using the cockroach as a model, Zarrouk and his team created a robot with jointed legs that can go over, under or around obstacles. Another robot, using the inchworm as inspiration, can propel itself through a tube. This type of mechanism might eventually be used inside the body, for example, to collect images and information in the intestines.

Zarrouk believes that the simplest answer is the best answer, although it can be challenging to achieve. “Everything should be as simple as possible but no simpler,” he said, quoting Albert Einstein.

Using computers to advise physicians, alert patients 

Dr. Yuval Shahar believes that the computer is a patient’s best friend. As head of BGU’s Medical Informatics Research Center, Shahar has developed computer programs that synthesize data from body sensors, a patient’s medical records and established medical guidelines to provide alerts and recommendations. Such systems could remind a patient with diabetes to check glucose levels or alert a physician about a patient’s irregular heart activity. 

In conjunction with the University of Haifa and several European entities, a mobile monitoring system is being tested in Italy on patients with atrial fibrillation (rapid, irregular heartbeat) and in Spain on women who have pregnancy-related high blood pressure or diabetes.

New ways to detect brain damage could be huge for NFL

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Football has come under increased scrutiny following findings that the contact sport has been causing serious brain trauma in players. Now, a team of researchers at Israel’s Ben Gurion University of the Negev's (BGU) Brain Imaging Research Center has developed a method that can detect damage to the brain much earlier than previously thought.

“This is an important study, it gives us the opportunity for the first time to be able to look at a functional change in the brain and individuals who've had concussions or sub-concussive head injuries,” Dr. Lee Goldstein, Associate Professor at Boston University School of Medicine, told The Media Line. “We know that these injuries are occurring… but at the moment we don't have an easy or meaningful way to diagnose these injuries in individuals, and this is a technique that may allow us to do that.”

After nearly a decade of research, Dr. Alon Friedman and his team of researchers at BGU developed a contrast-enhanced MRI that is able to identify significant damage to the blood vessels of the brain much earlier than was previously possible.

“We developed the study following basic research in animals which showed that the blood-brain barrier can break down after trauma or strokes, which can lead to complications,” Friedman told The Media Line. “Following these studies we decided it was crucial to develop ways to measure leakage in blood vessels.”

The blood-brain barrier is a permeable membrane separating circulating blood from extracellular fluid. This membrane protects the brain and prevents certain substances from entering it. If there is a breach in the barrier, external factors can cause inflammation that worsens psychiatric and neurological effects of any present brain injury.

The new method of MRI detects and localizes pathologies in the brain's blood vessels caused by even mild brain injuries. The Dynamic Contrast-Enhanced MRI generates more detailed brain maps that are able to show brain regions with vascular abnormalities.

“We tested it in football players from a local team and used athletes in non-contact sports as a control group,” Friedman said. “The big difference is that 40 percent of the football players showed significant pathology [in the blood vessels and blood barrier] before any other pathology can be seen,” he said.

The damage only showed up in the MRI Friedman and his team developed. The same players who showed brain damage in the contrast-enhanced MRI showed completely normal brain scans in previous MRI exams.

Friedman said they focused the study on football players because they have been known to suffer complications from injuries to the head, including depression, dementia, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. The previous studies they ran on animals showed that a breakdown in the blood barrier could lead to similar pathologies, but until now the diagnostic capability to identify mild injuries soon after the trauma didn't exist.

“There are two separate things we need to know about – the acute injuring which is what happens in and around the time of the single episode, and what happens chronically, over a period of many hits and what happens thereafter,” Goldstein said. “At the moment, we have no good way of sorting out either one, nor do we have a good way of being able to relate one to the other. This technique really offers for the first time a way to do both, to look at the acute injury and at what happens over a season,” he said, adding this technique could also provide a way to tell who is at risk for brain injury.

Although the study focused on football players, brain injuries are also common among soldiers which contributes to many neurological and psychological symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Dr. Hadar Shalev, a psychiatrist in charge of the trauma clinic at Soroka Medical Center, told The Media Line that even though the vast majority of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are considered mild or moderate, the disabilities that accompany them can be quite serious.

Around 10 percent of patients with a traumatic brain injury will continue to suffer from post-concussion syndrome, which can cause dizziness and headaches that can persist for weeks after suffering a brain injury. Problems with concentration, memory and problem solving have also been associated with brain injuries; distressed moods, irritability, difficulty sleeping and low frustration thresholds are common as well,

“It's important to understand that most of the time we don't see the pathologies early enough. We have no objective measure of when they should go back to play, if at all,” Friedman said. “When the damage appears in the exams it’s too late. What we are trying to create is a test that can detect very early on the brain pathologies, at a stage where we hope it can still be reversed,” he added.

Since TBIs change the brains of patients, the psychiatric effects must be treated differently as well. Shalev told The Media Line that because many of these patients have brain damage, the effects are difficult to deal with, something the new detection method might be able to help with.

“Because it is due to brain damage in many cases, [symptoms like depression] are hard to deal with, the techniques we use to treat psychoses in non-TBI patients aren't applicable.” Shalev told The Media Line.

He said that some patients may not recognize the symptoms and often self-medicate in order to deal with issues like severe anxiety or depression. That in turn, leads to a growing incidence of substance abuse among TBI patients.

“If I can identify the process in the brain of the patient, maybe I will be able to provide different treatments to reduce stress around the brain,” Shalev said.

The initial study at BGU was relatively small, so it's essential to enlarge the studies and apply it to other fields in order to confirm the method works and is relevant. Additional studies which they hope to conduct in the US and Canada would specify the conditions in which the method works and areas where there is still room for improvement.

This new detection method is also applicable to other types of diseases, unrelated to brain injuries sustained in contact sports. A certain percentage of patients with Alzheimer's disease and dementia also suffer from the same brain pathologies the new MRI detects, which can lead to earlier detection and treatment of these degenerative diseases.

Moving and Shaking: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem recently bestowed multiple honors on people with connections to the Los Angeles area. 

Patricia Glaser, a member of the university’s international board of governors, received an honorary doctorate on June 8 in Jerusalem. The Malibu resident also was honored for her contribution as a university benefactor in a separate ceremony the following day.

Glaser is a pre-eminent business trial attorney and the chair of the litigation department at Century City-based law firm Glaser Weil.

Daniel I. Schlessinger, president of American Friends of The Hebrew University (AFHU), said in a press release that Glaser’s “generosity and sense of Jewish communal spirit are immense.”

Additionally, Israel advocate and donor Mark Vidergauz received an honorary fellowship from the university on June 9 during the school’s international board of governor’s meeting in Jerusalem. Vidergauz is the founder and CEO of the Los Angeles-based investment bank Sage Group and a member of the Hebrew University international board of governors. 

An AFHU press release indicated that Vidergauz’s “tireless support for Israel” earned him the spotlight.

Haim and Cheryl Saban and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev President Rivka Carmi. Photo by Dani Machlis

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) presented Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander with an honorary doctoral degree during the 44th annual board of governors meeting in Beer-Sheva, Israel, last month.

During the May 20 ceremony, BGU president Rivka Carmi said Friedlander is “one of the foremost researchers of the history of the Holocaust for his notable contribution in elucidating the enigma of the Jewish people’s survival in our age,” according to an American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev press release. 

Per the press release, Friedlander — the inaugural holder of the 1939 Club Chair in Holocaust Studies at UCLA, a 1999 MacArthur Fellow and 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner — expressed hope that his work on the Holocaust will have a lasting impact. 

“My dream that people will take from my work is the direction leading to compassion, understanding the suffering of others, and the will to live peacefully with others,” the honoree said in accepting the honor.

During the same event, BGU recognized social activist, philanthropist and psychologist Cheryl Saban with an honorary doctoral degree. Saban, who is married to Haim Saban, is an author and president of the Saban Family Foundation.

“My ability to give is going to continue for the rest of my life, but I really think that when one person is giving, it’s like putting a stone in a pond,” Saban said, according to a press release. “It’s a ripple that continues out. It’s infectious — it’s actually contagious in a good way. 

In conferring the honorary degree, Carmi praised the honoree’s contributions to the community and called her “a woman of vision.”

Also recognized with an honorary doctoral degree was Long Beach philanthropist James M. Breslauer, who was recognized for “personally spearheading the development of and funding for Israel’s new cyber technology center, CyberSpark, at the new Advanced Technologies Park, in Beer-Sheva,” the press release stated.

American Jewish University president Robert Wexler and Los Angeles Jewish Home CEO-President Molly Forrest. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Jewish Home

American Jewish University (AJU) President Robert Wexler presented Los Angeles Jewish Home CEO-President Molly Forrest with an honorary degree during AJU’s commencement ceremony on May 18.

Wexler highlighted the important role Forrest, as the leader of a nationally renowned provider of senior health care services, has played in bolstering the L.A. Jewish community. 

“Molly, the work you have done on behalf of our community is nothing short of remarkable. Step by step, you have made our local Jewish Home a model for communities around the country, both through your creative planning and your careful management,” Wexler said, according to a press release.

In accepting the degree, Forrest said, “I am incredibly touched and honored to receive this doctorate degree and thank the AJU for it. rI share the success of today with gratitude to many donors, staff, colleagues, volunteers and board members who give so much to make the Jewish Home what it is.”

Front row (from left): Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami, former L.A. City Clerk June Lagmay, homeless-youth advocate Carlos Sosa, and community leaders Elaine Harley and Mignon Moore.

Back row (from left): Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim, City Controller Ron Galperin, NBA player Jason Collins, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, former Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, Councilmember Mike Bonin and Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell. 

Los Angeles’ LGBT Heritage Month kickoff celebration honored equality activists in the community on May 30 at City Hall.

This year’s honorees included NBA athlete Jason Collins, former L.A. City Clerk June Lagmay, homeless-youth advocate Carlos Sosa, Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Rabbi Denise Eger, and community leaders Mignon Moore and Elaine Harley.

The City Council gave a presentation about the activists and advocates, explaining the work they’ve done to more than 250 people in attendance. Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Controller Ron Galperin, Councilmember Mike Bonin and Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell participated in the ceremony, which was followed by a reception in the City Hall forecourt.

“LGBT heritage month is our opportunity every year to recognize the integral role of the LGBT community in our life and culture here in Los Angeles,” Galperin said.

Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood has advanced equality over her 26-year career. 

“It was a very significant event,” Eger said in a phone interview. “I think part of it has to do with the instrumental way the Jewish community has modeled learning to be tolerant, accepting and ultimately inclusive. And I think that is a huge issue. It wasn’t always inclusive. Now in the Jewish community in L.A., in particular, it still struggles, but even in the Orthodox communities, conversation is happening.”

Eger has worked with members of the government and City Council to address LGBT acceptance in Los Angeles and the world as a whole. Galperin called her and Edwards “two of our community’s most inspiring leaders — for their advocacy, scholarship and commitment to equality.”

“We’ve played a role in the Jewish community for that conversation to happen and for teaching other big traditions how to be inclusive,” Eger said. “We learn to work across color lines and ethnicity lines. It’s a model for the greater world.”

— Michelle Chernack, Contributing Writer

State Assembly candidates Jacqui Irwin and Rob McCoy participated in a dialogue at the New Shul of the Conejo on March 29. The New Shul’s Rabbi Michael Barclay moderated. Photo courtesy of the New Shul of the Conejo

Two candidates for the 44th State Assembly District — Democrat Jacqui Irwin and Republican Rob McCoy — participated in a debate on May 29 at the New Shul of the Conejo.

During the dialogue, which included an hour of debate and a meet-and-greet with audience members, the candidates discussed economic growth, education and their commitment to serving the community, according to Rabbi Michael Barclay. The district includes southern Ventura County.

Both candidates received enough votes in the June 3 primary election to advance to the general election in November. A third candidate, Republican Mario de la Piedra, did not take part in the debate.

The debate took place at the Center for Spiritual Living in Westlake Village, where the synagogue currently holds services. Barclay said there was a strong turnout for the event, with attendees filling half the sanctuary.

Since its founding 3 1/2 years ago, the New Shul has worked to establish a dialogue on spiritual, social and political issues relevant to the Jewish community. Last year, the synagogue invited three Jewish leaders from different denominations to discuss the community’s response to same-sex marriage. Barclay said these kinds of events create opportunities for Jews to become more educated on issues that affect them.

“I think it’s important for us to recognize that, in order for us to say we’re spiritual people, we have to be active people as well,” he said.

— Nuria Mathog, Contributing Writer 

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email