An Interview with Prof. David Mirelman



Prof. David Mirelman


Q: As Chairman of the Board of Yeda, which provides an interface between the Weizmann Institute and industry, do you feel that applied research is taken seriously enough here?

A: I don't like the term "applied research," which implies that it is a type of second-rate research in which you are setting out to produce a certain product. I prefer "applicable research," namely studies which while not product-oriented, may nevertheless pave the way to new products or processes. From my experience at Yeda, I can assure you that applicable research is taken very seriously at the Institute, and we are always on the lookout for innovations of economic potential.

Q: Why does so much potentially applicable research fail to turn into new products?

A: To understand the problem you must first realize that while people usually speak of R&D (Research and Development) as a single concept, the two are very different from one another. The research stage, in which we are all involved, is usually the most crucial because without it there wouldn't be a product at the end of the line. However, it is also the shortest and certainly the cheapest phase of the process. Where development is concerned, we must find partners with the requisite expertise and financial capabilities. And even then, the project may have to be abandoned because it doesn't live up to expectations or because of market considerations.

Q: Are there enough potential partners right here in Israel?

A: Unfortunately, no. This is because the development stage of novel products or processes is risky and demands long-term investments; Israeli industry isn't rich enough to undertake most such ventures. Moreover, the Government here has not offered sufficient tax or other incentives to investors when they accept long-term risks.

Q: Is there any way you can see of solving this problem?

A: We are exploring the possibility of forming a venture capital fund for high-technology projects, based on investments by a consortium of companies and private investors. This fund could put small amounts of money into early stages of promising projects and then invest more if it seemed justified.

Q: Have profits already been made from products that emerged from Weizmann Institute labs?

A: Certainly. For example, BioMakor, a biotechnological plant at the Kiryat Weizmann Industrial Park, is doing nicely by producing research chemicals and biological materials, many of which originated at the Institute. Another example is InterPharm, also in Kiryat Weizmann. It and its parent company Ares Serono are earning millions of dollars a year from antiviral pharmaceuticals based on interferon technology from Prof. Michel Revel's lab at the Institute.

Also worthy of mention are the encoding and decoding devices ("smart cards") used by TV satellite broadcasting companies and banks, devices based on the research of Institute mathematician Adi Shamir. In addition, significant income also comes in from the hybrid cucumber seeds developed by Prof. Esra Galun.

Q: Are we choosy when it comes to linking up with companies?

A: Absolutely. We have to be very careful to preserve the reputation of the Weizmann Institute. For example, we try to avoid committing ourselves to a partnership with organizations that might attempt to sell shares in the stock market under false pretenses. Of course, due to our caution we can sometimes end up losing potential business partners.

Q: Doesn't money, or lack of it, also create problems in conquering parasitic diseases, currently your main area of scientific interest?

A: That is very true. Parasitic diseases are primarily rampant in less-developed countries, and drug companies are not willing to put money into developing drugs or vaccines for potential customers who are virtually penniless.

Q: Do you believe that antiparasitic drugs are the answer anyway?

A: Only for very selective diseases, or for visitors to afflicted countries. But they are not, in general, a solution in areas where the parasite is endemic, because even if a person there is cured, he will almost certainly be reinfected. Vaccines should be a more satisfactory long-term answer.

Q: Is it particularly difficult to make vaccines that are effective against parasitic disease?

A: Yes, because parasites have developed sophisticated mechanisms for disguising their cell surface components and this helps them evade the host defense mechanism. Using genetic engineering techniques we are trying to design "smart" vaccines that will be based on conserved structures of the parasite, and these will hopefully enable the immune system to see through the parasite's disguise and destroy it.

Q: Is the Institute doing anything of significance in this sphere?

A: It certainly is. Prof. Israel Schechter has identified and cloned what appears to be one of the key components in the snail-borne blood fluke (flat worm) Schistosoma, which produces the debilitating bilharziasis that affects tens of millions in countries like Egypt and Brazil. Also studying that malady is Prof. Ruth Arnon, who is examining other components present in Schistosoma that may prove to be useful as vaccines.

My own group is working on amoebic dysentery, a disease caused by a single-celled protozoan organism and spread by polluted water or food contaminated by fecal waste. We have also identified and cloned a number of essential components in the amoebae and are currently evaluating their immuno-protective potential.

Q: Why should Institute scientists be putting so much time and effort into parasitic diseases which, after all, aren't much of a problem in this country?

A: Firstly, we are interested in helping to solve one of the pressing health problems of mankind. Secondly, as mentioned before, the parasites have developed extremely sophisticated methods for evading the body's defenses, and whatever we learn about these mechanisms may help us understand how other "invaders," such as viruses or tumor cells, evade these same defenses.

In addition there is also much to be learned by finding out how a parasite adjusts to changing environmental conditions. During its complex life cycle, it is never sure where it will be the next day -- in a human host, in a mosquito, in a sewage system or somewhere else. It is very important to understand how the parasite rapidly senses such drastic changes in its microenvironment and regulates its metabolism in response to them. Such knowledge could lead to entirely new approaches to defeat parasitic disease.

Q: Is there a parallel between parasitic diseases on the one hand, and AIDS on the other?

A: There may be some analogies. With the AIDS virus, as with parasites, constant molecular changes are the key to survival. But there are some essential cell component and protein structures that neither a parasite nor an AIDS virus can change if it wishes to survive, and if we discover what they are and successfully reproduce them we may be able to create drugs or vaccines to control them.

Prof. Arnon holds the Paul Ehrlich Chair of Immunology; Prof. Mirelman, the Bensen-Brender Chair of Microbiology and Parasitology; and Prof. Schechter, the Dr. Hymie Moross Chair of Molecular Immunology.