What’s New on Campus?

Throughout the pandemic, researchers at Israel’s universities continued to make remarkable discoveries in a wide range of fields, many of which are destined to have a real impact on our world. Here are some of the recent research breakthroughs conceived on Israeli campuses

The Technion research group. From left Rotem Elimelech, Yoav Harris, Prof. Ido Kaminer and Shahar Gottlieb.
Rami Shelush, Technion spokesperson's office

Simple diagnostic blood test that can replace biopsies – Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Prof. Nir Friedman and Dr. Ronen Sadeh of Hebrew University’s Life Sciences Institute and School of Computer Engineering have published a study in Nature Biotechnology that shows how a wide range of diseases can be detected through a simple blood test. The new blood test has the potential to diagnose a wide array of diseases including cancers, liver diseases, immune disorders and more, and can report on the exact state and location of the disease without invasive and painful biopsies.

Dr. Israa Sharkia  preparing samples for DNA sequencing in Prof. Nir Friedman and Dr. Ronen Sadeh's lab at Hebrew University
Dr. Israa Sharkia preparing samples for DNA sequencing in Prof. Nir Friedman and Dr. Ronen Sadeh's lab at Hebrew University

The test allows lab technicians to identify and determine the state of the dead cells throughout the body and thus diagnose various diseases including cancers and diseases of the heart and liver. It is even able to identify specific markers that may differ between patients suffering from the same types of tumorous growths, which can potentially help physicians develop personalized treatments.

“Based on those findings, we can uncover key details about the patient’s health,” Prof. Friedman explains. “We are able to better understand why the cells died, whether it’s an infection or cancer and based on that be better positioned to determine how the disease is developing.”

Along with the clear diagnostic benefits of this process, the test is also non-invasive and far less expensive than traditional biopsies. “We hope that this approach will allow for earlier diagnosis of disease and help physicians to treat patients more effectively,” says Dr. Sadeh.

World’s first cultivated ribeye steak – Technion–Israel Institute of Technology

The Faculty of Biomedical Engineering at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology and Aleph Farms Ltd. have successfully cultivated the world’s first slaughter-free ribeye steak, using three-dimensional bioprinting technology and natural building blocks of meat – real cow cells, without genetic engineering and immortalization. The company now has the ability to produce any type of steak and plans to expand its portfolio of quality meat products.

Unlike 3D printing technology, Aleph Farms’ 3D bioprinting technology is the printing of actual living cells that are then incubated to grow, differentiate, and interact, in order to acquire the texture and qualities of a real steak. A proprietary system, similar to the vascularization that occurs naturally in tissues, enables the perfusion of nutrients across the thicker tissue and grants the steak with the similar shape and structure of its native form as found in livestock before and during cooking.

“As we look into the future of 3D bioprinting, the opportunities are endless,” says Technion Professor Shulamit Levenberg, Aleph’s Co-Founder, Chief Scientific Advisor and a major brainpower behind the company’s IP. Levenberg is considered a global leader in tissue engineering and has amassed over two decades of research in the field at MIT and Technion.

A healthier alternative to antibiotics – Tel Aviv University

In a groundbreaking new study led by Dr. Natalia Freund and doctoral candidate Avia Watson at the TAU Sackler Faculty of Medicine, researchers were able to develop a “biological antibiotic” and demonstrate that human antibodies can offer an alternative to traditional chemical antibiotics. The study was conducted in collaboration with laboratories in the United States and China and published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Communications.

Dr. Natalia Freund (right) and doctoral candidate Avia Watson in the Tel Aviv University lab
Dr. Natalia Freund (right) and doctoral candidate Avia Watson in the Tel Aviv University lab

“Advances in biological medicine have enabled us to rout the germs in new ways that are not based solely on antibiotics, allowing for a solution to the challenge posed by resistant germs. Our study is an initial proof of the concept of employing monoclonal antibodies (derived from single cells) as an effective therapy for combating bacterial pathogens,” Dr. Freund explains. Antibodies are today in widespread use in the clinic for treatment of cancer, autoimmune diseases and viral infections such as Covid-19.

The research team chose Tuberculosis as a test case and was able, for the first time ever, to create an effective treatment based on anti-bacterial antibodies that developed naturally during infection. The researchers in Dr. Freund's laboratory have succeeded in isolating two types of antibodies which contributed to a 50% reduction of the bacterial levels in mice relative to other mice that were not treated with antibodies. These antibodies have been found to be effective against three different strains of the tuberculosis bacterium and are expected to be effective also against additional strains, including strains that are resistant to antibiotics.

New method for diagnosing neurological conditions – Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) have developed a new method for rapidly diagnosing brain blood vessel pathology that may lead to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease, as well as other neurological and psychiatric conditions, including epilepsy, traumatic brain injury and stroke. The novel method is based on analysis of EEG patterns using proprietary algorithms and was invented by Dr. Dan Milikovsky and Prof. Alon Friedman, MD-PhD, Departments of Physiology and Cell Biology, Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Prof. Alon Friedman of Ben-Gurion University
Prof. Alon Friedman of Ben-Gurion UniversityDani Machlis BGU

The novel diagnostic method is based on findings from Prof. Friedman’s lab that patients with Alzheimer's disease and other brain conditions display nonconvulsive epileptic seizure-like activity that can be detected by EEG recordings.

“Since dysfunction of the blood-brain barrier (BBB) is a key component in the pathogenesis of epilepsy, we hypothesized that BBB dysfunction in Alzheimer's patients would also trigger abnormal brain activity that could be detected by EEG, an accessible and affordable tool used in the clinic, and serve as a diagnostic method for these conditions,” explained Prof. Friedman. The technology was successfully tested on animal models and dozens of patients and is now being validated on large databases of EEG records of thousands of patients.  

BGN Technologies, the technology transfer company of Ben-Gurion University, is now seeking a potential industry partner for the further development and commercialization of the technology for a variety of applications, including monitoring of ICU patients and patients after stroke and head injuries and for the diagnosis of vascular pathology in early Alzheimer’s disease.

Identifying people from genealogy databases – IDC Herzliya

According to new research led by Prof. Yaniv Erlich of IDC Herzliya’s Efi Arazi School of Computer Science and published in Science, more than 60% of Americans with European ancestry can be identified through their DNA using open genetic genealogy databases, regardless of whether they have ever sent in a spit kit.

Consumer companies have so far created genetic profiles for more than 12 million people, according to recent industry estimates. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve been tested or not tested,” says Erlich, who is also the chief science officer at MyHeritage. Erlich and his partners analyzed MyHeritage’s dataset of 1.28 million anonymous individuals and, after counting the number of relatives with big chunks of matching DNA, found that 60% of searches turned up a third cousin or closer. That level of relatedness was all investigators needed to solve at least 18 cases so far with this approach.

Public records indicating where someone lives to within 100 miles cuts the candidate pool in half. Knowing their age to within five years excludes 9 out of 10 of the remaining candidates. Gender, which you can learn from DNA, gets the list down to around 16 individuals. Knowing the exact birth year could get you down to just one or two people. According to Erlich, it won’t be long before it’s possible to do that kind of search on anyone who leaves a bit of DNA lying around.

Bionic chips create drugs without animal testing – Hebrew University of Jerusalem

A team of researchers led by Prof. Yaakov Nahmias, director of the Grass Center for Bioengineering at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and founder of Tissue Dynamic, introduced a new technological approach that has the potential to rapidly develop new drugs without the need for animal experiments.

The Hebrew University team developed human-on-a-chip technology, using human tissues in a device, which mimics human physiology. Prof. Nahmias’s research, recently published in Science Transitional Medicine, incorporates microscopic sensors in the human tissue itself, enabling the team to precisely monitor the body’s response to specific drug treatments.

“What makes our technology unique is that it allows us to go beyond what was ever possible with animal experimentation. We are now able to insert microsensors that offer us real time information on how drugs work and when they stop working,” Prof. Nahmias says.

This application represented the first time that the bionic chip was used to develop a drug protocol while avoiding the traditional dependence on animal testing. “This groundbreaking technology has the potential to significantly reduce the testing and production time for drugs while also avoiding the need to test animals in the lab. This will save time, money and certainly unnecessary suffering.”

Nanosatellites launched into space – Technion–Israel Institute of Technology

On March 22, the autonomous satellite group developed at the Technion as part of the Adelis-SAMSON project was launched into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Glavkosmos Soyuz rocket. The project is supported by the Adelis Foundation, the Goldstein Foundation, and the Israeli Space Agency in the Ministry of Science, Technology and Aerospace. Four hours and twenty minutes after the launch, the nanosatellites entered orbit, and 30 minutes later, they began operating their systems.

The trio of satellites will move in space in an autonomous structure flight, in coordination with each other without the need for guidance from the ground. The band will be used to calculate the location of radiating sources on Earth, a technology that will be applied in locating people, planes, and ships. Each of the three miniature satellites (CubeSats) weighs about 8 kg and is fitted with sensors, antennae, computer systems, control systems, navigation devices, and a unique and innovative propulsion system.

“The Adelis-SAMSON project is a wonderful and exciting example of the successful integration of science and technology and the translation of innovative ideas into effective systems that contribute to humanity,” said Prof. Uri Sivan, President of the Technion. “Scientific and technological breakthroughs require multidisciplinary research and close collaboration between academia and industry, and this is what has led the project to this important day.”

Predicting the degree of chronic pain – University of Haifa

A new international study conducted by Dr. Pavel Goldstein of the University of Haifa’s School of Public Health together with colleagues from the University of Colorado shows that, in order to reduce suffering from chronic pain, one must avoid negative emotions and be less tired. “In our research, we developed a new model that predicts the future pain levels of people suffering from chronic pain, based on their emotions and level of fatigue. People with high levels of fatigue and negative emotions reported higher levels of pain,” says Dr. Goldstein.

Chronic pain affects 19-37% of the world’s adult population and research has proven that the brain plays a central role in the perception of pain. “Pain is a type of alarm that warns that there is a problem in the body. However, in people with chronic pain, there are false alarms. We feel pain but there is no harm to the body. Fear of pain is one of the clear predictors of chronic pain and it involves many psychological and emotional elements,” Dr. Goldstein explains.

The current research, published in Neurotherapeutics, confirms the important connection between experience and emotions, and is based on Machine Learning. It can potentially lead to a simple and inexpensive AI tool that will predict the level of future pain in chronic sufferers and can affect their treatment program. 

Provoking memories by sniffing odors while sleeping – Weizmann Institute of Science

Neuroscientists have shown that it is possible to influence the process of memory activation while we sleep by using odors we associate with those memories. Now, a Weizmann Institute study looking at the function of the olfactory system during sleep found that introducing certain odors directly to a single nostril of sleeping subjects can specifically activate that same side of the brain—and thereby reactivate specific memories. The study, published in Current Biology, was carried out by neuroscientists Profs. Rony Paz, Noam Sobel, and Yadin Dudai, in collaboration with Prof. Yuval Nir from Tel Aviv University.

The team reached this discovery by studying a process called targeted memory reactivation (TMR), which involves exposing participants, while they nap, to sensory cues for information they learned while awake. In this study, the scientists took advantage of a unique characteristic of the human olfactory system: When you sniff odors through one nostril, the odor will mainly activate that side of your brain. Thus, the scientists hypothesized that single-nostril olfactory stimulation would lead to ‘one-sided’ brain activation, and therefore if done during sleep, could reactive memories selectively on one side of the brain.

“The study proved it is possible to transcend the across-the-brain activation typical of TMR by selectively promoting specific memories,” says Prof. Paz, who also heads the Department of Neurobiology. The researchers envision using this non-invasive technique to help individuals with one-sided brain problems, such as persistent traumatic memories or unilateral stroke injuries.

Zuckerman Institute: Supporting research at Israeli universities

The Zuckerman Institute was established in 2015 to achieve the philanthropic vision of Mortimer B. Zuckerman: to enhance collaboration among the most promising scholars in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in Israel, the United States and Canada. Since then, the Institute’s various activities and programs have significantly bolstered STEM research at Israeli universities, and its philanthropic support has enabled outstanding scholars to pursue cutting-edge research in Israel.

The Zuckerman Faculty Scholars Program provides vital resources to Israeli universities, allowing them to compete with top North American institutions for the most promising candidates. The program facilitates the return of Israeli scholars to Israeli institutions, cultivates world-class scientific talent, and in turn, attracts outstanding postdoctoral researchers from the best western universities, thus creating a cycle of excellence.

Another initiative, the Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program, jointly operated by the Zuckerman Institute and universities in Israel and the US, enables scientists and scholars to push forward with their boldest research and take the risks necessary to find solutions for tomorrow. Furthermore, the Zuckerman Postdoctoral Scholars Program attracts high-achieving postdoc scholars from premier universities in the United States and Canada to do research at Israeli universities. Once they complete their research, many Zuckerman postdocs are expected to accept faculty positions at top North American universities, weaving a network of academic collaboration and goodwill that will greatly benefit US-Israeli scientific cooperation.