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This week, two scientists from Israel's Weizmann Institute were honored for an achievement that bears on the lives of many people throughout the world.
Prof. Ruth Arnon and Dr. Dvora Teitelbaum received Women of Distinction Awards from Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, for three decades of pioneering scientific research that led to a new drug for multiple sclerosis.
This honor was bestowed upon them along with four other outstanding Israeli women at a festive ceremony in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, on January 26. The Awards were inaugurated this year by Hadassah to celebrate the organization's 85th anniversary.
Arnon and Teitelbaum won the honor for synthesizing and developing -- together with former President of the Weizmann Institute Prof. Michael Sela --_the MS drug called copolymer-1 (COPAXONE®). In December 1996, COPAXONE®received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, one of the first Israeli-produced medications to achieve such distinction. It is manufactured and marketed by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., which further developed the drug with the participation of physicians and researchers from Israel and other countries.
Paradoxically, the long journey of scientific exploration that resulted in the development of copolymer-1 began with a major disappointment. In trying to produce an MS-like disease in laboratory animals, the scientists synthesized several protein-like molecules called copolymers that mimicked a natural substance believed to trigger MS. But despite repeated efforts, the new molecules failed to produce the disease.
The scientists persisted, and in studying the properties of their copolymers stumbled upon an amazing discovery. Rather than triggering MS-like symptoms, the molecules actually blocked them. The researchers immediately knew they had a potential drug on their hands.
Years of research and several clinical trials later, one of these molecules, copolymer-1, indeed proved effective in alleviating the symptoms of relapsing-remitting MS in human patients.
MS, which affects at least one million people worldwide, is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys the protective coating of nerves, leading to symptoms ranging from numbness to paralysis.
"By talking to patients and their physicians, we knew long before the large clinical trials had been completed that we were on the right track," says Teitelbaum.
Over the years, the Weizmann Institute researchers became personal friends with some of the patients who had been helped by the drug. "It's hard to describe the wonderful feeling of satisfaction that comes from the realization that our work is bringing someone relief," says Arnon.
But she and her colleagues are not about to rest on their laurels, she says, adding that they hope to apply what they learned from their research on copolymer-1 to finding remedies for other autoimmune disorders.
"And meanwhile, as an Israeli," she says, "I am really proud that Copaxone, which will bring relief to MS sufferers all over the world, is a true 'Sabra,' a born-in-Israel product."
Prof. Arnon holds the Paul Ehrlich Chair of Immunology.
The Weizmann Institute of Science is a major center of scientific research and graduate study located in Rehovot, Israel. Its 2,400 scientists, students and support staff are engaged in more than 850 research projects across the spectrum of contemporary science.