Comprehensive coverage

Biotechnology: a budget ten times larger will produce companies a hundred times larger

Says Prof. Michel Rebel, chairman of the National Committee for Biotechnology at the Ministry of Science

A few weeks ago, the Minister of Science, Culture and Sports held a ceremony to mark the completion of the decoding of the human genome. It turns out that even in our small country there were scientists who took part in the global effort. The hosts were Prof. Michel Rebel, chairman of the National Committee for Biotechnology which operates under the Ministry of Science and a researcher in the field of molecular genetics at the Weizmann Institute (developed the interferon molecule that is the basis of Interpharm's drug for multiple sclerosis) and Prof. Hermona Sorek from the Hebrew University. The National Genome Center is also split and is located partly at the Hebrew University and partly at the Weizmann Institute.
It turns out that the reason for the minister's invitation was not only the completion of the genome project, but also a note of research by Israeli researchers in isolating new genes and recording genes related to diseases in Israeli families and more.

As part of the meeting, a discussion on bioethics was held and the ethical, moral and religious questions arising between the lecturers at the conference were Rabbi Yigal Shafran from the Chief Rabbinate, Prof. Amos Shapira from the Faculty of Law in Tel Aviv, Prof. David Head from the Department of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University and Prof. Rebel himself Summarizing his speech: "In addition to my other duties, I have also been a member of UNESCO's International Committee on Bioethics since 93 and the main work of the UNESCO Committee was writing a universal declaration on the human genome and human rights. This is a document that was accepted by UNESCO in 98 and 99 and became an official document of the United Nations. Now, just as the UN has a declaration on human rights, there is also a declaration on the human genome and human rights.

"The statement mostly talks about practical questions, but it also has some important principles: the first of which is that the genome belongs to the entire human family, therefore the statement demands a prohibition of discrimination. The statement also requires, and this is an important expression of human freedom - that man and his genetic traits should not be reduced and that man and his uniqueness, the differences between people, should be respected. The document also talks about the changing human genome and also interaction with the environment. You can't blame everything on the genes, but you have to take care of the environment - health, education and not solve the need to educate people on the grounds that they are genetically damaged, so it's a shame to waste resources on them."

"I presented the important things written in this statement, that a person should not be reduced to his genes, a person is also a product of education, of the environment, certainly we should not neglect investments in education because we think we know or even if we know completely that the level of intelligence is a genetic trait. You have to carefully balance the effects of genetics and the environment. I also believe, as written in the statement, that society should not intervene whether to give birth to a child with a defect, these should be decisions of the individual, accompanied by a genetic explanation. The science behind a genetic screening or genetic test that is done to pregnant women should be explained. I also said that the use of genetics in my opinion should only be within the framework of the relationship between the doctor and the patient. The doctor, according to his conscience, determines if he has a medical reason to intervene."

"If we take for example the issue of sex selection. Today it is possible to carry out a test that determines with certainty the sex of the fetus through an examination of an embryo or even in vitro fertilization. The destruction of the fetus is morally permissible if it is a family where both parents carry a gene for hemophilia and want to prevent the birth of a male child who will carry the disease and therefore they want to ensure that the girl will be healthy. But if it is about choosing a sex for non-medical reasons, such as the balance of the sexes in the family or a cultural preference for a certain sex, not only the doctor can't but also the termination of pregnancy committee will not be able to approve a termination of pregnancy in this case.. Genetics should also be considered in the same way. It is forbidden to use the knowledge gained from genetic engineering for the 'improvement of the species'. It should be explained to those who wish to give birth to the ideal child that there is no such thing: an ideal genome."

Electronics: What is happening in the field of genetic engineering and research in Israel?

Prof. Rebel: "There is a national genome center in Israel. The National Committee for Biotechnology was established in 88 after the Ephraim Katzir report which stated that priority should be given to the field of biotechnology. The purpose of the committee is to encourage the development of biotechnology. It tries to improve the connection between basic research and academia and between applications in industry. Our committee is made up of half of industrialists and half of academics and public figures.
One of the mechanisms we have chosen is the establishment of national centers with funding - mainly by the Ministry of Science to this day (we are trying to involve the Ministry of Science and Technology as well) and we have seven such centers that cultivate advanced technologies that academics - researchers and research workers in industry can also use.

"One of these centers is the National Genome Center which is located partly at the Weizmann Institute and partly at the Hebrew University and is headed by Prof. Doron Lantz from the Weizmann Institute. This center has a device for collecting DNA (a sequencer) that is one of the best in the world, the same as the one at Celera, which became famous for decoding the genome, only ours has one device and they have 300. This allowed the State of Israel to be a partner in part of chromosome 21 - one of the chromosomes that an Israeli project sequenced from him."

"What's nice is that it allows doctors today - and there are ten such projects - to use the center to find genes related to Druze families or different ethnic groups that they are interested in. There is also the option of using DNA chips - these are machines that allow testing between 10 and 20 thousand genes at once , on a small chip that reads the information and can give an answer regarding the expression of genes at certain sites or the presence of mutations. These are the main roles of the Genome Center"

"It is also important to note that all genomic research today very much needs computer science and a whole field called bioinformatics was born. Today we are working on the establishment of a large research in bioinformatics. There are beginnings, within the genome research itself, but we think that the next issue in companies like Compugen is their foundation."

"There are a number of other companies active in the field in Israel. Compugen is the best known. There are a number of start-up companies operating especially in this direction. There are 130 companies in the field of biotechnology in Israel - 15 large ones with more than a hundred employees. There are a lot of mediocres and a lot of beginners."
And what is the contribution of the genome field to the economy?

"The contribution will be in all areas - starting with the production of proteins - drugs by genetic engineering and today we hope that the interpretation of the human genome will lead to a large number of new drugs. This is a very important future because a new drug can bring in revenues of a billion-a billion and a half dollars a year. Several drugs can change the image of the biotechnological industry. To date, medicines have been developed. I developed a drug and it is in use, but until today we have been helped by multinational companies (such as Ares-Serono which purchased Interpharm). One day this industry will grow enough to be a full player in the field of biotechnology in the world."

Is it a question of money?

"We are asking the State of Israel to invest 25 million dollars. In the plan that we submitted to the government, it is about 25 million dollars and we do not receive it because the treasury always puts a foot down. Precisely today, the ministerial committee for science and technology affairs that discusses scientific issues wants to give the greatest support to biotechnology. We hope that she will be able to convince the Treasury that it should be done. The Ministry of Taxation invests directly in many companies - such as in the electronics companies, but I am talking about national support of a national program. If we got $25 million a year for five years we could do a lot of things. Today we receive close to 2.5 million dollars".

Can you elaborate?

"The national centers are one example. for the use of money. We need to develop more and give them more equipment and power. They really contribute a lot to the ability to transfer information from the excellent basic research in the life sciences (mainly the fields of medicine and agriculture) to tracks that will be attractive to industry. This is the main problem: there are many good ideas. Turning an invention into a product is difficult, and it requires using more rigorous methods, which is the goal of these centers."

"We also need to encourage venture capital and allow them to build industrial infrastructures that do not yet exist. In the field of life sciences, we don't have an army behind us like in electronics, we are building on an academic infrastructure only and there is a lot of infrastructure missing that will allow the industry to develop and find the necessary technological means."

The other and no less important thing is manager training. There is a great shortage of managers and entrepreneurs, perhaps also a certain misunderstanding on the part of the entrepreneurial public who do not always understand biotechnology. We talk about the high-tech sector and forget that it was also once in the beginning stage. There is a lot of work in recruiting managers and entrepreneurs.
The managers should come from the pharmaceutical industry and currently this industry is not particularly interested in biotechnology. It is important to bring in people from abroad and make connections with companies from the industry abroad. There are already many companies for nationalization Interpharm is a subsidiary of Ares-Serono - a European biotechnological company. There are more and more chances that we can bring in a large pharmaceutical company to do what Bam and Motorola did in Israel in the past in high-tech fields. to open development and production centers and this will bring managers and enrich the manpower that exists in Israel in this regard.

Many entrepreneurs say that if they had found the right manager they could have invested much better. This is true. There is a lack of managerial power also because those managers do not come from units in the army which are the source of managerial power in electronics."

"We hope that the government will approve these plans and increase its support for the industry. This is the main reason we invited Minister Vilnai. I'm sure he's convinced that there's currently a 5-year window of opportunity that needs to be seized and used now. Then we regret not entering at the right time. It should be hoped that he will be able to pass at least some of the plans in the government. I should point out that Minister Ran Cohen also published in the press before his departure his support for biotechnology.

Leave a Reply

Email will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismat to prevent spam messages. Click here to learn how your response data is processed.