US-Israel Partnerships: Accelerating medical innovation

U.S.-Israel Bridge Building

US-Israel Partnerships: Accelerating medical innovation

U.S.-Israel Bridge Building

July 2021

One way to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship is by developing new approaches—learning with and from each other—to solving some of the world’s toughest health challenges. San Francisco Bay Area universities are drawing on their traditions of distinguished scholarship to forge the cutting edge of data science and analysis. Israeli scientists have relatively quickly garnered international attention for the value of their innovations, both academically and entrepreneurially. Additionally, Israeli medical centers and universities have the real-life experience of confronting trauma and mass casualty events, plus the asset of a public health system that captures and maintains large datasets about the population. Through scholarly exchanges, in-person symposia, and grants, researchers and other experts at these institutions can advance ideas leading to more personalized medicine, promoting integrative healthcare, and encouraging innovative drug development for diseases that have yet to see medical breakthroughs.

  • Preparing for widespread trauma and emergencies

    The Rambam Health Care Campus (Rambam), located in Haifa on the Mediterranean coast, is collaborating with Stanford University’s Department of Biomedical Data Science on a broad range of projects. These collaborations have rich potential for advances both in digital health and in big data analysis. Rambam brings first-hand experience through its Center for Trauma, Emergency and Mass Casualty Situations; Stanford’s Department of Biomedical Data Science brings expertise in data mining.

    One high-priority project that was already underway when the pandemic hit was developing a regional disaster preparedness network in northern Israel and a regional network in the SF Bay Area. The mass casualty scenarios (MCS) the researchers had anticipated included earthquakes and wildfires in the Bay Area and terrorist activity in the north of Israel. However, when the pandemic ballooned into the largest public health crisis in decades, the partners pivoted quickly to share their expertise, supporting colleagues around the globe in formulating their own emergency-response plans and protocols. The 3rd Annual Stanford Medicine and Rambam Health Care Campus Symposium that took place virtually in November 2020 attracted over 600 registrants from more than 50 countries. Presenters from Stanford Medicine’s Department of Biomedical Data Science and Rambam discussed topics including hospital surge capacity, data sharing, coordination between health systems, mental health, research during a pandemic, health disparities, and telehealth. This was critical training for the real-life disaster that was unfolding.

    Additional projects the collaborators will undertake include developing educational programs to promote innovations in medical technologies and refining patient-centric systems of care for cancer patients. Once international travel becomes less risky, the two institutions will facilitate the exchange of physicians, faculty, and students, as well as research funding and an annual symposium for sharing ideas. Supporting the exchange of knowledge between these two institutions has already proven more valuable than stakeholders envisioned.

  • Hunting for predictors of neurodegenerative diseases

    Tel Aviv University (TAU) and Stanford University School of Medicine’s Department of Biomedical Data Science are collaborating to identify biomarkers in the earliest stages of four neurodegenerative diseases that have thus far proven basically unstoppable: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, and Huntington’s. The prevalence of these devastating diseases continues to increase, and research to date seems to indicate that people of Jewish descent carry an increased risk of developing them. There is as yet no effective strategy for treating neuronal degeneration. Unfortunately, most major pharmaceutical companies have decreased their research in central nervous system diseases due to low success rates. The partners are focusing on advancing new strategies for screening and on “informed advocacy” to encourage drug development.

    The TAU and Stanford collaboration also includes researchers at UCSF’s Gladstone Institutes and at the Buck Institute on Aging. The teams have collaborated across labs to make meaningful progress investigating biological events that may provoke neurodegeneration and to develop possible treatments to test for therapeutic benefits.

    TAU’s Sagol School of Neuroscience, the most influential in Israel, houses the cutting-edge microscopy equipment needed to support these research efforts. More than 20 Sagol neuroscientists have received mega-grants from the U.S. National Institute of Health, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the European Research Council. TAU currently has more than 20 drugs and medical technologies in development.

  • Harnessing the potential of bioinformatics

    Bioinformatics involves developing algorithms and computer software to record and analyze biological data. This young field holds enormous potential for introducing an era of personalized medicine to treat diseases from cancer and diabetes to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. To advance this goal, Tel Aviv University (TAU) and UC Berkeley (UCB) are conducting collaborative research to develop computational tools that integrate genetic, genomic, and other patient data.

    The partners had planned extensive in-person opportunities for graduate students and post-docs from TAU’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Bioinformatics and UCB to develop close working relationships. The pandemic put on hold major annual workshops and seminar series; joint research projects; and, an innovative joint summer research program to be hosted by the Simons Institute for Theory and Computing at UCB. Virtual seminars quickly rose to the fore as an excellent platform both for sharing research and for fostering personal connections. In June 2020, a TAU researcher whose work was supported by this collaboration presented a study about tracing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Israel, at a virtual symposium hosted by UCSF. Later in 2020, this initiative hosted two online seminars presenting studies regarding the pandemic’s spread.

  • Improving outcomes for children with leukemia

    The Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University are pooling their expertise and resources to develop targeted, personalized treatments for children with leukemia. The disease is usually successfully treated with chemotherapy, but about 20 percent of patients subsequently relapse. Many of these children do not survive. Some of those who do respond to chemotherapy experience serious side effects later in life.

    A pair of researchers—one at Weizmann and one at Stanford—will investigate the biochemical functions involved in the two most common childhood leukemias. For this first-of-its-kind study, patient samples will be provided primarily by Stanford. Metabolomics analyzes how the body processes what is brought into it (oxygen, nutrients) and how it disposes of what it doesn’t need (urine, stool). Test results, in conjunction with big datasets, will be correlated with patients’ clinical data. It is anticipated that the research findings will lead to developing better—meaning targeted and personalized—treatments that may be safer than standard chemotherapy and effectively reduce relapse rates.

Although the pandemic put in-person exchanges and academic gatherings on hold, technology not only enabled these collaborations to move forward, but also sparked new ways of sharing data and developing future-forward approaches. Most timely, the expertise of these institutions also contributed to the way trauma centers managed through the COVID-19 pandemic surge in the fall/winter of 2020.

These medical research partnerships are both diverse and multidisciplinary. On the individual level, the disease origins and vulnerabilities they examine will advance global progress toward an era of truly personalized medicine. On the broadest societal level, improving and formalizing emergency response and treatment—whether to a wildfire or earthquake, gun violence or a pandemic—is an essential aspect of modern public health infrastructure. We are all in this together.

Our companion story, US-Israel Collaborations: Predicting and preparing for the next crisis, highlights current concerns and opportunities for improving public health by harnessing new technologies, from 3-D printing to data mining and post-pandemic urban planning.