Weizmann scientists, in S.F., reveal immunology advances

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When more than a dozen Weizmann Institute of Science professors and researchers gathered in San Francisco last week for an immunology symposium, Rhona Bader flew up from Los Angeles to meet them.

Her daughter Debra, 35, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis seven years ago. Five years ago, she began participating in a clinical trial for copolymer 1, a drug developed at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel. The drug was recently submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval for use in patients with relapsing-remitting MS.

A graduate of UCLA's law school, Debra Bader had a promising career as an attorney. But by the time she began the clinical trial, she was severely disabled, unable to work.

"She had deteriorated physically and mentally in front of our eyes," said her mother during a pre-symposium reception at the St. Francis Hotel. "She had full body tremors. She was unable to stand. If we sat her up, she fell over. She could not feed herself. My daughter, who had graduated summa cum laude from New York University, was unable to work the remote control on a television set."

About a year after Debra Bader began taking copolymer 1, her symptoms changed dramatically. Although she is still unable to work, she is now walking and living independently.

"What happened to my daughter was nothing short of a miracle," said Rhona Bader. "Before, we could not leave her alone. Now she lives alone, she dates and she taught herself to use the computer."

Weizmann scientists at the symposium spoke about the success more modestly. Although it is not a cure, copolymer 1 has been shown to slow the progress of MS and reduce flareups by nearly one-third. If approved by the FDA, it will be marketed under the trade name Copaxone.

A few months before 1967's Six Day War, Weizmann chemical immunology professor and former president Michael Sela began the autoimmune research that resulted in copolymer 1. He was joined by professor Ruth Arnon, who in addition to her research at Weizmann, is the institute's vice president for international scientific relations.

Both were in San Francisco for the symposium as well as for the ninth International Congress of Immunology, held at Moscone Center. They were honored at a pre-symposium reception sponsored by Weizmann and the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

"The highlight of my life is to be able to alleviate suffering," said Arnon. "We're keeping our fingers crossed that there will be a new drug and new hope for MS patients."

Copolymer 1 joins a long list of Weizmann-developed drugs and treatments that offer hope: Discoveries in a Weizmann laboratory laid the groundwork for amniocentesis in humans. Weizmann scientists first proposed the use of synthetic antigens, now the basis of many of today's vaccines. They identified the oncogenes associated with myeloid leukemia, one of the most common childhood cancers, and were among the first to show that cancer development is a multistage process.

At the immunology congress and at the symposium, Weizmann scientists discussed new research that may improve the prognosis for patients with autoimmune disorders, leukemia, central nervous system damage and organ transplants.

Weizmann professor Yair Reisner co-developed a method enabling leukemia patients to receive bone marrow transplants from unmatched donors. Three to 16 months after treatment, six of the 17 treated patients — all formerly terminal — were alive and free of the disease. The hope is that the technique, which opens up transplantation to those who cannot find suitable donors, will also help those with noncancerous blood disorders such as sickle cell anemia.

The research of Weizmann Professor Gideon Berke, who delivered a talk at the congress, also may improve the prospects of those needing transplants. His field is killer T-lymphocytes, the white blood cells that defend the body against viruses and other invaders.

"They can kill another cell in a very specific and exquisite manner," said Berke.

Berke's research, begun in 1967, could result in treatments to increase the potency of killer lymphocytes in fighting cancer as well as viral diseases. It may also result in treatments to block the action of killer lymphocytes, furthering the success rate of transplants and reducing the symptoms of autoimmune diseases.

"Every cancer vaccine, every virus vaccine, every means that would avert transplant rejection must operate by tampering with killer lymphocytes," Berke said.

Weizmann neurobiology professor Michal Schwartz, another immunology congress speaker, had long been interested in why it is possible to repair central nervous system damage in fish and amphibians but not in mammals. She looked to evolution for answers.

Working with fish optic nerves, Schwartz's research group identified an enzyme and injected it into the severed optic nerve of a rat. The injection partially restored the rat's response to light.

"We may — I'm insisting on the word `may' — reverse blindness in rats," said Schwartz, whose work points to the possibility of restoring function to a damaged central nervous system, an achievement long considered impossible in adult mammals.

Other speakers at the symposium included Professors Zelig Eshhar, Israel Pecht, Menachem Rubenstein and David Wallach. Dr. Irving Weissman, a professor at Stanford Medical School and past president of the American Association of Immunologists, moderated the panel.

Dan Koshland, a U.C. Berkeley biochemistry professor and retired editor of Science, spoke briefly at the pre-symposium reception. The former Bay Area chairman of the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute lauded Weizmann's advances in MS, which took the life of his mother. Introducing Sela and Arnon, he said, "Fortunately, God is not handling all things alone."

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].