Six Israeli Scientists Awarded Howard Hughes Medical Research Prizes

Study topics range from the brain’s role in immunity to the functions of gut bacteria and the manipulation of cell stems in plants and animals

The Israeli International Research Scholars for 2017, from top right clockwise: Ido Amit, Idan Efroni, Shalev Itzkovitz, Asya Rolls, Yossi Buganim and Eran Elinav.
The Israeli International Research Scholars for 2017, from top right clockwise: Ido Amit, Idan Efroni, Shalev Itzkovitz, Asya Rolls, Yossi Buganim and Eran Elinav. Shay Herman, Rami Shlush, Ohad Herches, Itay Belson/Weizmann Institute and David Bachar

Six Israeli researchers are among the 41 winners of the prestigious international Howard Hughes Medical Institute award for promising young researchers outside the United States.

Each of the International Research Scholars, who hail from any area of medical science, from brain research to computational biology to biophysics, receives $650,000 over five years, giving them the freedom to pursue new research directions and creative projects, explains HHMI, which provides the grants together with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

The awardees were chosen by a panel of leading scientists from a pool of 1,400 candidates, based on their past achievements and potential.

The competition is open to all scientists who work full-time for a research university, medical school or nonprofit organization, and who managed a lab for at least seven years.

The six Israelis are Asya Rolls of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa; Yossi Buganim and Idan Efroni of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Dr. Eran Elinav, Shalev Itzkovitz and Ido Amit of Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute of Science.

Asya Rolls, an assistant professor, researches the relationship between the brain and immune system, studying how thoughts and emotions can affect health. It’s a philosophical question, she says, but this influence can be studied scientifically, because emotions and thoughts are ultimately translated into brain activity.

To put it another way, if the brain, through thoughts and feelings, can affect the immune system, which protects us from the likes of bacteria and cancer, then how does the brain affect the immune system’s ability to eradicate cancer cells? “I hope these studies will lead to the development of new approaches,” Rolls says.

Over at Weizmann, Eran Elinav has been working on gut bacteria and how they affect us. His work on “personalized nutrition” has made a lot of waves (i.e., one person can gorge on cake and not get fat, another can’t). Recent research has increasingly been finding that changing our intestinal microbiota can profoundly affect our health.

Shalev Itzkovitz just last year got a Young Investigator award for his work in molecular biology in mammals, or as he puts it, “the design principles of mammalian tissues.” His work involves applying mathematics to biology, in order to investigate how tissue structure and single-cell gene expression patterns achieve physiological goals and what goes wrong in disease.

Ido Amit studies the genetics of the immune response: He too ultimately aims to improve personalized medicine.

At Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Yossi Buganim is also a multiple award-winning scientist, for his work on stem cells and regenerative medicine. His team invented and improved ways to reprogram adult cells into other cell types, says HHMI, explaining its rationale in choosing him.

Idan Efroni is something of an outlier in this group: His work is in plant sciences, not medicine per se. He studies the molecular biology of plant regeneration. Not medicine. HHMI explains why he’s on the list: He has been “unraveling the mystery of plants’ impressive regenerative abilities. He uses tomatoes to study how plants generate new stem cells and meristems to replace damaged or missing roots.”

The hope is that Efroni’s work will “reveal clues about tissue regeneration in other organisms,” okay — and mainly, help grow more food for an increasingly hungry planet.

Asya Rolls of the Haifa Technion-Israel Institute of Technology sits at a microscope in her laboratory, in a photo from July 2016.
Rami Shlush