Taking on a global threat

Alumni from the Weizmann Institute of Science joined the race to develop possible drugs and vaccines to slow the spread of the Covid-19 outbreak

In 2020, Covid-19 brought the world to its knees, infecting millions of people and killing hundreds of thousands. Weizmann Institute of Science alumni, working in biotech companies across Israel and beyond, are proudly leading the charge against this new threat. Dr Itamar Yadid, a researcher and group leader

at Tel-Hai College and MIGAL Galilee Research Institute, is one such alumnus. Back in 2016, MIGAL — in collaboration with the Israeli Veterinary Institute — began developing a vaccine for a strain of Covid-19 that infects chickens. Using his existing knowledge and research setup, Dr Yadid and other MIGAL researchers are now designing an oral vaccine for Covid-19. “My time at Weizmann gave me an extensive

education in protein engineering and production,” he says. “It gave me the tools I needed to develop screening methods and automated procedures, which are essential in my work.”

Plasma trials Elsewhere, Dr Noga Alagem is working in the Clinical Development Department at Kamada — the first company to initiate clinical trials for a plasma-derived immunoglobulin therapy for Covid-19, which involves transferring antibodies from recovered patients to infected individuals. A phase I/II clinical study was successfully

completed at the Hadassah Medical Center, with a total of 11 out of 12 patients with Covid-19 pneumonia showing improved symptoms within 48 hours of treatment and getting discharged

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within a few days. “I’m proud to work at the first company in the world to have this type of product ready, and to be part of the effort to find an effective treatment for Covid-19,” she says.

Quelling the cytokine storm Dr Veronique Amor earned her MSc and her PhD in the Department of Molecular Cell Biology. Now head of development at Enlivex, she’s looking at a potential treatment for Covid-19 patients who experience an overreaction of the immune system known as a cytokine storm — which can cause organ damage, failure and death. It was the time Dr Amor spent at the Weizmann Institute that armed her with the expertise she needs at Enlivex. “Weizmann gave me the opportunity to learn from the best,” she says. “It taught me how to set priorities, carefully build a study, critically analyze data and logically organize results.” And working on a similar therapy is Dr Gilad

Kunis, a scientist at Pluristem Therapeutics studying the effects of placenta-derived cells on the immune system. The company has begun a phase II clinical trial for severe Covid-19 patients, who run a higher risk of developing cytokine storms. “In Prof Michal Schwartz’s lab, we were always looking at the big picture to see how things could be realistically applied — a mindset that’s been useful at Pluristem,” Dr Kunis, a former PhD student on Prof Schwartz’s team in the Department of Neuroscience, says. “Now we’re in advanced clinical trials, I can see the application of the science, which is really exciting.”

130 Weizmann alumni have established start-ups in the high-tech or biotech industries

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