Renowned Israeli Immunologist Michael Sela Who Helped Develop Copaxone Dies at 98

Sela, who fled the Nazis in Poland as a teenager and eventually became president of the Weizmann Institute of Science, developed treatment drugs against multiple sclerosis and cancer

Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev
Michael Sela being promoted to the Commander in the National Order of the Legion of Honour by decree of the President of the French Republic in 2011.
Michael Sela being promoted to the Commander in the National Order of the Legion of Honour by decree of the President of the French Republic in 2011.Credit: Mati Milstein / Getty Images
Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev

Michael Sela, a world-renowned Israeli immunology expert who also served as president of the Weizmann Institute of Science, died on Friday at the age of 98.

An Israel Prize laureate at the age of 35 for his life science research who also earned many other awards during his career, Sela was involved in the development of the drug Copaxone for the treatment of multiple sclerosis as well as three cancer treatment drugs. His research shed light on the genetic aspects of the functioning of the immune system and led to new fields of immunology.

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Michael Sela was born in Poland in 1924 and immigrated to pre-state Israel at the age of 17 after fleeing the Nazis with his family via Romania. A short time after arriving in Israel, he began studying chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After earning a master’s degree in chemistry, he went to Geneva for doctoral studies but abandoned his studies several months later and went to Italy to help Holocaust survivors headed for Israel. Although his immediate family had escaped Nazis, many members of his extended family died in the Holocaust.

In 1950, Sela joined the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot as a biophysics research student at a lab run by Prof. Ephraim Katzir, who would later become president of Israel. Katzir was doing research at the time on polyamino acids to understand the properties of proteins. Identifying the immunity properties of the acids led to the development of synthetic antigens molecules that provided an immune response. Along with Prof. Ruth Arnon and Dr. Dvora Teitelbaum, that ultimately also led to the development of Copaxone.

In an interview with TheMarker, Haaretz’s business daily, Sela recounted that the drug was developed by accident in 1967. At the time, Sela was doing research on the effects of synthetic antigens on the immune systems of mice. He and his colleagues assembled molecules resembling proteins which, they assumed, would produce a disease similar to multiple sclerosis.

The researchers were surprised to discover that not a single laboratory animal that had been injected with the molecules developed MS.

“It was only a year and a half later that it occurred to us that if it didn’t cause disease, maybe it provided a cure. Ironically, we had never aspired to cure anyone. We wanted to cause disease, and we were unsuccessful,” he said.

‘Giant in his field’

“Michael was a giant in his field,” Prof. Ruth Arnon told Haaretz on Saturday. “He was the one who developed the entire field of immunology in Israel. If Israel has made a contribution to immunology on a global level, it’s thanks to him.”

“Michael was a wonderful man, kindhearted and generous. He was encouraging of everyone and helped anyone whom he could. He was a smart man with an uncommon capacity to forge ties among people,” she added.

In 1963, Sela established the Weizmann Institute’s chemical immunology department, which he headed. In 1975, he was appointed the sixth president of the Weizmann Institute, a position in which he served for 10 years.

“Michael Sela will forever be remembered in the annals of science as one of those mythological multifaceted scientists who created and developed fields of research,” said Prof. Alon Chen, the current president of the Weizmann Institute, “subsequently leading hundreds and thousands of scientists on paths of research that have changed the world.”

Sela founded the Yeda-Sela Fund, which supports basic research projects, and also devoted time to the fields of culture and art. He was among the initial supporters of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company and honorary vice chairman of the Arthur Rubinstein piano competition. He was on the boards of the Rimon School of Music in Ramat Hasharon and of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

Sela and his second wife, Sara, lived in a large, art-filled home on the grounds of the Weizmann Institute. They had a daughter together in addition to two daughters from Sela’s first marriage and a son from his wife’s first marriage.

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