In order to spread and metastasize, cancer needs help from within the body. Autoimmune diseases also rely on “traitors” inside body tissue. Often, these pernicious internal collaborators are various enzymes whose appearance spells bad news; blocking them might form the basis of new drugs and therapies for a host of diseases.
How to block an enzyme? First, its structure and mechanism of action must be understood. But this can be a tricky task. Enzymes are complex molecular machines that act fast and don’t yield their secrets easily. Prof. Irit Sagi of the Weizmann Institute’s Structural Biology Department challenges them with unique multidisciplinary research tools. For example, the enzyme MMP9 is produced in metastatic cancer cells and in tissues attacked by autoimmune disease. Sagi has managed to reveal its entire structure and has designed an antibody that thwarts its negative action. This antibody might be used to create a new drug against metastatic cancer and autoimmune diseases.
In other studies, Sagi developed a method for precisely tracking, in real time, the changes taking place in active enzymes. This method is employed today to decipher the mechanisms of enzymes at the level of single atoms. It is also helping researchers to plan and develop a new generation of safe and highly effective drugs. Numerous pharmaceutical companies are showing an interest in Sagi’s research methods.
“My mother immigrated to Israel from Afghanistan, my late father from Iran. Both were Zionists, and they instilled in me a love of Israel and its nature. This melting pot produced an unmistakable identity: We are Israeli, and our place is in Israel. The Weizmann Institute allows me to guide my studies into groundbreaking directions, filled with great risk but also great potential.”
“I chose to be photographed in the Ashkelon marina, not far from the place where I used to go surfing as a child.”
Prof. Irit Sagi’s research is supported by the Avron-Wilstaetter Minerva Center; Mr. and Mrs. Michael Ambach, Boca Raton, FL; and the estate of David Turner. Prof. Sagi is the incumbent of the Maurizio Pontecorvo Professorial Chair.