Dr. Yinon Ben-Neriah is Professor of Immunology and Cancer Research at the Lautenberg Center of Immunology, Hebrew University Medical School in Jerusalem.  Dr. Ben-Neriah obtained his MD from Tel Aviv University and PhD from the Weizmann Institute of Science. He completed his postdoctoral training with Dr. David Baltimore in the Whitehead Institute and MIT. Dr. Ben-Neriah is an elected member of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), a spokesman of the International German Israeli Graduate program SignGene, Chair of the advisory board of the BIOSS Excellence Center of Freiburg University (Germany), and Adjunct Professor in Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Dr. Ben-Neriah’s research group studies the impact of the innate immune system in cancer development. They found the first major molecular link between inflammation and cancer and identified new types of inflammatory reactions affecting cancer. Based on their studies in animal models of cancer, Dr. Ben-Neriah and his colleagues are developing new chemotherapies with a capacity of eliminating cancer stem cells, thereby possibly curing a few types of cancer. Dr. Ben-Neriah and his team have worked closely with WuXi’s International Discovery Service Unit (IDSU) to discover and develop molecules towards this end. ILpress had an opportunity to catch up with Dr. Ben-Neriah and to gain his insights on cancer immunotherapy and the future of biotech innovation in Israel.

Dr. Ben-Neriah, your cancer research has many dimensions.  What have been some of your key findings to date? Specifically, how is your research addressing the search for new chemical matter or drug to target cancer invasion?

BN: Cancer micro-environment, inflammation and cancer stem cells are the top three issues in cancer biology that I try to address in my research. Some of our key findings include discovering the first molecular link between inflammation and cancer, elucidating key steps in activation of the inflammation-cancer lynchpin NF-kB, discovering new forms of inflammation affecting cancer and identifying a new type of chemotherapy with the potential of curing some cancers.  In the future, I believe we will be able to create a therapeutic agent to address cancer invasion, possibly by enhancing p53 activity.

How were you and your team able to discover some of your more potent compounds? What insights have you gained as a result?

BN: We worked with WuXi’s IDSU to develop many of the compounds we use in our research at the university. We were happy to work with IDSU as they were able to deliver innovative designs of materials, superb quality control and rapid turnaround of our materials. The compounds we developed are small molecules inhibitors (SMIs) targeting a specific protein kinase, which we used to target before by genetic engineering of cells and organisms. Genetic ablation of the kinase has multiple signaling effects, often with contradicting cellular and tissue responses. In contrast, we have found that different synthetic analogues of the same SMI are capable of highlighting only a fraction of the kinase activity, sometimes restricted to a single pathway, thus avoiding contradictory and masking effects of other signaling pathways. This property unfolds new avenues of studying cell and tissue biology, as well as providing the opportunity of developing more selective therapeutic means of cancer therapy.

Israel has been dubbed the “Start-Up Nation” as it produces more start-ups per capita than Japan, China, Canada, Korea and all of Europe. Within this surge of innovation, Israel has produced outstanding science and has been home to many Nobel Laureates.  What do you think are some of the factors that have contributed to Israel’s prominence in this field?

BN: The main factors that have contributed to Israel’s rise in this field are creativity and ambition. I have traveled to many of the top academic centers around the world and yet have found only a fraction of the ingenuity practiced here. Israelis are bold in their innovation and have the drive to see that innovation through.

Can you discuss future trends in Israeli science and the challenges they face going forward?

BN: Israeli biomedical science is taking a lead in some of the most modern fields, from single cell genomics, precision medicine and immunotherapy of cancer to systems biology. The problem, however, is translating it to diagnosis and therapy. Israel’s relatively small market and economy are challenges to growing Israeli science and further developing that technology within Israel. As a result, many small Israeli biotechs collaborate with bigger biotech and pharmaceutical companies all over the world.