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The twists and turns in the drama of combating disease are no less sensational than those found in a typical soap opera. In both, the "villain" may actually turn out to be the "good guy." For example, Prof. Avraham Ben-Nun of the Institute's Immunology Department has discovered that the bacterium responsible for whooping cough may provide protection against autoimmune diseases.
Autoimmune diseases occur when the body betrays itself: the immune system, meant to identify and attack disease-carrying agents and other invaders, starts to attack proteins that are native to the body and vital to its ongoing functions. Scientists combating these diseases seek to suppress the immune system's attack on these proteins without weakening the system as a whole. When Bordetella pertussis microbes (which cause whooping cough) invade a body that is already "at war" with itself, they can increase the severity of the immune system's attack, intensifying the symptoms. Ben-Nun has discovered, however, that when these microbes enter the body prior to the onset of an autoimmune disease, they can prevent its occurrence. He later proved that these opposing actions are caused by pertussis, a toxin produced by the microbe.
Analyzing this toxin, Ben-Nun found that while one of its components is responsible for encouraging the immune system's attack, another blocks it. A research team led by Ben-Nun is now examining how this component might be used to treat various autoimmune diseases, as well as to stop the growth of cancerous metastases.
Prof. Avraham Ben-Nun holds the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Professorial Chair. His research is currently supported by the Abisch-Frenkel Foundation, the U.S. National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the Israel National Science Foundation.
"As a child, I loved the outdoors. I had an extensive flower and butterfly collection and dreamed of studying medicine. After being wounded during military service, I gave up medicine and turned from macro to micro biology."