Listening to Ben-Gurion University (BGU) professor Smadar Cohen explain how she has helped to turn plant algae into the stuff of life-saving heart repair is a humbling experience.
Cohen, the former heads the The Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren Department of Biotechnical Engineering at BGU in the faculty of health science building on the main campus in Be’er Sheva, is from a Yemenite background. She grew up in Petah Tikvah, and like many Israelis, comes across as genuinely down-to-earth – a Jewish mother in a lab coat.
Yet she and colleagues are involved in an area of research that years from now, could quite credibly vie for a Nobel Prize.
This research studies the use of polymer substances and natural “bio-materials” to deliver, through the circulatory system of someone who has suffered heart damage after a myocardial infarction, the substance of life.
In simple terms, she and colleague prof. Jonathan Leor created an injectable liquid polymer “device” that finds its way through the blood to a specific area of damaged heart tissue, then transforms almost magically into a gel-like material that heals that same tissue while minimizing damage.
“It’s all about cardiac regeneration,” Cohen said. “This is a process that we think works better than stem cells, restoring blood flow – and it is all inspired by nature.”
Cohen was joined by colleague Rony Granek, who does research in the field of nanotechnology.
Cohen and Leor’s invention, successfully demonstrated in a 2009 study, may well be the stuff BGU dreams are made of. After the study appeared, an Israeli drug development company, BioLineRx, began working with a New Jersey company, Ikaria Holdings Inc., to develop Cohen’s invention BioLine and called it “BL-1040.” Ikaria paid almost $300 million to Bioline for the licence to sell and earn future royalties on the product.
BL-1040 is now in its final clinical trials, managed by Ikaria.
According to the online news service Israel21C, Cohen’s genius has been rewarded. After working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1987 to 1992, she returned to BGU to develop the BGU bio-tech department, which, Israel21C noted, is the only Israeli university whose bioengineering department consists of “engineers working on biology,” instead of the other way around.
Cohen has been ranked 12th on a list of Israel’s 50 most influential women and she holds 26 patents. She has also been recognized through grants and other honours on numerous occasions, including, according to Israel 21C, the $100,000 Rappaport Prize for excellence in biomedical research for her recent groundbreaking work.
Granek, who has been at BGU for 10 years, said researchers are also on a continual lookout for an “optimal nano-particle carrier,” such as the application of stem cells.
“My own emphasis is not on the drugs,” he said, “but on the particles.”
David Lazarus took part in a media mission to BGU and was a guest of the university.