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Q & A with Alon Chen: On the cutting edge of science

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Alon Chen

Alon Chen is the newly installed president of the Weizmann Institute of Science, a highly regarded postdoctoral research facility in Rehovot, Israel. Chen, an expert in neuroscience with an interest in issues related to stress, was in Toronto and Montreal recently to introduce himself to the institutes’s supporters, meet potential donors and visit at McGill University, where he discussed potential collaboration.

What distinguishes the Weizmann Institute from other Israeli academic institutions?

Weizmann first is a research institute, not a university. We don’t have a graduate school. We have only masters, PhDs and postdocs.

Its international ranking is extremely high. The Nature (Index) quantified the quality of science by looking at the scientific journals where they publish, and normalized it to the size of the institute. Weizmann was rated, globally, in second place.

As the new president of Weizmann, what is your vision for the Institute?

First is to continue and maintain and increase the way we operate, which is all about excellence.

It is curiosity-driven research. We put a strong emphasis on the quality of the scientist that we recruit. We screen from around the world, with no limits on them being Jewish or Israelis.

We can recruit in any field of science.

We give them full freedom. The management will not interfere with the science. My role is to provide the best infrastructure and state of the art equipment to allow them to do this science.

It’s a very multidisciplinary institute. We cultivate interaction between our departments and faculties. Many people work on the border between physics and chemistry, biology and physics, and so on.

We don’t use a top down approach. Everything is bottom up.

The other uniqueness of Weizmann is the community. It’s a beautiful, green campus. Most of the scientists live on campus. We have day care on campus, swimming pools and gyms, so scientists and their families can enjoy, live and interact.

We can go home and meet and continue discussing science when we meet in the playground. This creates a very unique atmosphere, a community feeling. It’s a little like a kibbutz. This is something I’d like to maintain and even develop.

What about commercialization of the science. How does that factor in?

Weizmann focuses on basic or fundamental science, but our technology transfer unit is known around the world. It is responsible for patenting the findings and it interacts with industry.

Probably our biggest success story is a drug for multiple sclerosis called Copaxone, made by Teva. This drug which is more than 20 years old, has made billions for the company. Weizmann benefited from it, and the scientist who developed it, in a unique system that eventually gave the scientist 40 per cent of those revenues. Sixty per cent went to the institute, which is a lot compared to other places.

Tell me about some interesting innovations that have come out of Weizmann recently.

Some are related to pathologies and drugs. We have many in the pipeline. One is a flu vaccine, which is very different than the current vaccine. It’s based on antibodies that target proteins that don’t change from year to year. This will definitely change the way we deal with the flu. It’s now in the late stages of clinical trials.

We have a new treatment for prostate cancer. The basis for this is using plant chlorophyll, which absorbs light. The first clinical trials in Canada started in Toronto, at the Princess Margaret (Cancer Centre).

This speaks to the story of Weizmann. Avigdor Scherz is a plant scientist and yet he’s developed a treatment for some cancers. It’s non-toxic and non-invasive. A patient is injected with a molecule which is based on chlorophyll. Then, in the operating room, a fibre-optic (cable) is placed in the prostate tumour and a light is shined that illuminates the chlorophyll, which becomes toxic, and cuts down the oxygen supply of the tumour and it shrivels up. It’s a 20-minute treatment and the patient walks off the table and goes back to work. It’s 95 per cent successful with prostate cancer. It can be applied to any  solid tumour that can be seen on an ultrasound, that hasn’t metastasized yet.

That’s the beauty of Weizmann. A plant scientist  taking his knowledge of chlorophyll and photosynthesis, collaborating with someone in a completely different field and saying, what we can we do and letting them follow their curiosity.

You co-authored a paper on sex differences in the way the brain deals with stress. We hear now that sex differences are a construct, and in your paper you say that male brains respond one way and female brains, another way. Do you ever feel pressure to restrict your research because it offends some politically sensitive topic?

No. It’s science to discover the facts, so we don’t limit.

Of course there are major differences in the way we respond to drugs, the way our biology is designed. And stress is a very good example. People can tell you whatever they want, but males and females do not respond the same to stressful stimuli, not hormonally, not behaviourally. The underlying mechanism is different. Do we need to treat them differently? Probably yes.

Do you feel pressure from those who say this violates their ideology?

Not at all. In contrast, there is a huge pressure from the side of women to include females in every research you do. I have a student who is studying sex differences and every time somebody in the lab or in a lecture is talking, she says, okay, did you also check it in females?

Has the Weizmann Institute felt targeted by the BDS movement? Has it lost collaborations because of that?

Here and there we feel it. I think it’s much stronger in the humanities, in social sciences. The universities in Israel feel it more strongly.

Within science we don’t see it much. I think it’s mostly due to the fact that we do such amazing science that our colleagues want to collaborate. We are a major site of knowledge and innovation. I don’t think BDS can really damage this.

Have any Weizmann scientists been addressing the coronavirus?

Yes. We have one fantastic scientist, a relatively young scientist, in the faculty of chemistry. He’s working on the structure, the protein and the envelope of these viruses. Since the coronavirus epidemic, he got a lot of attention. He is definitely going to contribute to the knowledge about it.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.

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