Israeli firms get Michael J. Fox Foundation grants

Two Israeli companies working on treatments for Parkinson’s disease have been awarded grants by the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

Cell Cure Neurosciences and Proneuron Biotechnologies were awarded $660,000 and $430,000, respectively, under a new program started by the foundation to recognize that breakthrough research is being done in industry.

“Can you believe it? Two out of the 10 companies that received a grant under the therapeutic development initiative came from Israel,” said Karen Leeds, development officer at the Fox Foundation. “The competition was stiff. More than 70 companies from all over the world applied.”

The two small Israel biotech companies successfully competed against industry giants like Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. In fact, Cell Cure received the largest grant awarded by the foundation under the initiative.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation was founded by Parkinson’s sufferer and actor Michael J. Fox, who portrayed Alex P. Keaton in the sitcom, “Family Ties,” and then Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty on “Spin City.” He also had a successful movie career, highlighted by starring roles in the “Back to the Future” series.

More than 6 million people worldwide — 1 million in the United States alone — suffer from Parkinson’s. Since 2000, the foundation, either by itself or in partnership, has funded $90 million in research, which could also aid patients of other neurodegenerative diseases, such as ALS and Alzheimer’s.

The foundation’s research initiative, which allocated $4.6 million, was designed to encourage commercial entities conducting research on the central nervous system to focus on a cure for Parkinson’s. Without money from the foundation, much of this research would likely be stalled.

Although both located in Israel, Cell Cure and Proneuron are taking different approaches to find a cure for Parkinson’s. Cell Cure focuses on stem cells, while Proneuron’s research centers on the immune system.

According to professor Benjamin Reubinoff, Cell Cure’s chief scientific officer and head of research, the company’s research centers on converting human embryonic stem cells into dopamine producing neurons.

The damaged neurons of patients suffering from Parkinson’s can no longer create dopamine in the brain, thus causing the muscle tremors, rigidity and twitches that make life a nightmare for them. When given synthetically, dopamine relieves the patient’s symptoms, but its effect is temporary and is associated with significant side effects. Reubinoff hopes to successfully transplant converted dopamine-producing neurons into the human body, enabling the body to resume producing its own dopamine.

The director of Hadassah’s Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center, Reubinoff is also a gynecologist who specializes in infertility problems and in vitro fertilization.

“It was through my work in infertility that I got to stem cells,” Reubinoff said.

Cell Cure is jointly owned by ES Cell International of Singapore and Hadasit Bio-Holdings, the publicly traded (Tel Aviv Stock Exchange) subsidiary of Hadasit, which is the corporation that handles the intellectual property of Hadassah Medical Center.

In marked contrast to the charged legal and political atmosphere in the United States against stem cell research, the field is flourishing in Israel, according to Dr. Charles Irving, Cell Cure’s chief operating officer.

“In all of the United States, there are 10 public stem cell companies, while in tiny Israel there are already five. It seems like more companies are going public on the Tel Aviv exchange every week. Supporting stem cell research seems to come from the Jewish ethos of helping people,” he said, backing up similar sentiments from Reubinoff.

“The Jewish religion and Orthodox rabbis support human embryonic stem cell research,” Reubinoff added. “Their priority is to save a human life. The Israeli Knesset has passed a law authorizing this kind of research,”

Founded on the groundbreaking neuroimmunology research of Dr. Michal Schwartz of the Weizmann Institute, Proneuron uses different but equally valid research to search for a cure for Parkinson’s. Instead of creating new neurons, Proneuron seeks to repair and restore neuronal function by using the body’s natural repair machinery, the immune system. Previously, it was thought that it was best not to engage the body’s immune system in repairing damage to the central nervous system.

While Parkinson’s patients show an inflammation of the central nervous system, anti-inflammatory medication has not helped. Proneuron’s research has shown that boosting the right immune system response can successfully modulate the immune activity to become beneficial for neuronal survival and renewal. This approach has the potential not only to attenuate or stop disease progression but also to restore lost function, according to Dr. Eti Yoles, the company’s vice president of research and development.

After earning a doctorate in neurobiology from Bar-Ilan University in 1990, Yoles spent the subsequent 10 years first as a post-doctoral fellow and later as an assistant staff scientist in Schwartz’s laboratory. There she studied the physiological aspects of post-traumatic neuronal survival, focusing on the role the immune system plays in maintenance and repair of the central nervous system. Bringing that expertise to Proneuron has enabled the company to advance to the level of beating out the stiff competition for the Fox Foundation grant.

“The foundation was enthusiastic about Proneuron’s approach to modulate immune responses as a possible neuroprotective therapy for Parkinson’s disease,” said Dr. Brian Fiske, associate director of research programs for the foundation. “We are pleased to provide funding for this potentially high-impact research.”
Proneuron’s Yoles wasn’t surprised by the success of her company or that of Cell Cure in winning the foundation grants.

“The science in Israel is at a very high level,” she said. “Students are encouraged to compete and collaborate internationally very early in their career. Since there is not much money to fund research in universities in Israel, scientists here learn quickly to adapt their research towards commercial use.”

Laura Goldman is a freelance writer for ISRAEL21c, a media organization focusing on 21st century Israel.