Campaign Priorities

High-Tech Jerusalem

High-Tech Jerusalem

 

 

 

Jerusalem has become a world renowned hub for technology and innovation. Leading the city’s reputation is the Hebrew University, where our faculty and students are conducting groundbreaking research on the cutting edge of science – from nano, quantum, and computer sciences to bioengineering, cyber security and astrophysics. They are creating startups and projects that will change our understanding of our world and how we live, and have the potential to solve some of humanity’s most pressing challenges.

Leadership for Tomorrow

Leadership for Tomorrow

 

 


The future of the Hebrew University is only as bright as the talent and faculty it can attract in the coming years. Therefore, we are committed to attracting the very best students and scholars. With the continued support of our generous community, we can drive the innovative breakthroughs needed to solve the world’s complex problems, and together make the Hebrew University of tomorrow a reality.

Global Collaboration

Global Collaboration

 

 

In an increasingly connected world, technology is reducing and eliminating traditional borders and boundaries. Information and knowledge are being shared faster than ever before and real-time communication is bringing people and ideas together, often without even meeting face-to-face.    

Better World

Better World

 

 

Driven by its mission to develop science and knowledge for the benefit of humankind, the Hebrew University embraces initiatives that aspire to a better world by:

  • Training future researchers, professionals, and leaders to pursue in-depth scholarship, ask big questions, and develop new approaches to solving local and world challenges.

  • Creating knowledge with far-reaching potential and sharing it with students and colleagues from around the world.

Building Capacity

Building Capacity

 

 

Allowing the next generation of scholars to solve society’s most pressing challenges requires places and spaces. Hebrew University is committed to building the necessary laboratories,  libraries, classrooms, and more, so that our students and faculty can meet, share ideas, engage in pioneering research, and ultimately change the world.

Human Impact

Liel Maghen presenting at a UN conference on urbanization in Abu Dhabi

Community Empowerment in East Jerusalem

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Liel Maghen | Glocal

Back in 2009, Liel Maghen participated in a year-long program at the Arava Institute, where students from Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority studied side-by-side. This experience was both familiar and completely foreign. As his father was born in Libya, Liel was increasingly able to pick out familiar Arabic words, while at the same time realizing his ignorance about his peer’s lives and histories.

These experiences led him to move to Jerusalem. “Jerusalem is where people have no choice but to live together, side-by-side, interdependently,” he reflects. “I wanted to immerse myself in its shared urbanism while learning more about city and regional history.”

Liel enrolled at Hebrew University, majoring in political science and Middle Eastern studies. However, he struggled to align his experiences in the Arava with those in Jerusalem. He became involved in community initiatives that bridged the two parts of the city – East and West. Yet Liel felt that the East Jerusalem Palestinian community and their needs were often overlooked.

When Liel heard about Glocal, he knew it was for him. He applied and began the program immediately after earning his BA. 

“Glocal exposes students to micro- and macro-approaches to community development, balancing theoretical knowledge with practical skills. This combination gave me a wide understanding of how to be a catalyst for sustainable change in people’s lives.”

Liel hoped to do his Glocal internship in the Palestinian Authority or Jordan, but geo-political events led him to travel to Buenos Aires. There he focused on inner-city tensions, exploring ways to empower marginalized communities through mechanisms of urban development.

He returned to Jerusalem brimming with ideas and was appointed as co-director of a local non-profit that promotes inter-communal and regional initiatives. In partnership with the Davis Institute, Liel began bringing together Jerusalemites from across the city to envision a different future for the city and form working groups aimed at improving living conditions in different neighborhoods.    

Liel also began working at Glocal, advising students and alumni, editing the annual magazine, and teaching a course on gender and community development in Jerusalem.

A few years later, Liel and colleagues from East Jerusalem partnered with local activist Tareq Nassar and Muslala (a local non-profit). Together they founded Sinsila, an East Jerusalem community center that takes an ecological approach to urbanism and offers a wide variety of courses: urban agriculture, permaculture, honey cultivation, urbanism, a women’s cooperative, and much more. Program alumni run and sell their products and the center’s café, while other alumni have established green roofs and maintain beehives across East Jerusalem. In total, over 100 women now have a sustainable, ecological income.

At some point, Liel reflected on all he’d accomplished. “Glocal taught me to recognize power dynamics that exist between societies. Only when such dynamics are recognized it is possible to support a true change and one that empowers local leadership and inter-dependence.”

He added: “Glocal taught me how to harness resources and skills to foster local leadership – and crucially, the importance of then taking a step back. For Sinsila (and every change) to be sustainable, it must be run from within the community, while we must understand our role in service and in support of local needs.”

 

Liel Maghen presenting at a UN conference on urbanization in Abu Dhabi
Liel Maghen presenting at a UN conference on urbanization in Abu Dhabi
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Jerusalem Forest

Jerusalem: A City Surrounded by Hills

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Jerusalem Forest

 

Shir Gilo loves Jerusalem – and she’s always looking for ways to make the city better. Better for its residents, better for communities, and better for future generations.

She’d always felt drawn to Jerusalem, and after moving to the city decided to enroll at the Hebrew University and pursue a BA in Jewish Studies and Hebrew Language. She began working for Tene Yerushalmi, a local leadership organization that connects young adults to the city of Jerusalem through learning, tours, and social and community involvement. It was a natural fit, as she’d always been a social activist. 

Within a few years, Shir realized that rather than advocate and protest, she wanted to be sitting around the table where decisions were being made. To this end, she decided to pursue a master’s degree, to take her career to the next level.

She chose Hebrew University’s master’s program in Urban Planning and joined the Urban Clinic. She’d seen the planning processes from the other side – working in neighborhoods and communities undergoing urban regeneration. She knew that planning was never just about buildings – it was about the people and communities that occupied the building. Building community, fostering trust, guiding processes – these were things Shir knew how to do, and did well.

During her studies, she began examining the history and role of Jerusalem’s open spaces, primarily to the west and north-west of the city. These unbuilt areas were intentionally designed to enhance the experience of ascending to Jerusalem – a city on a hill. The stark demarcation between the open spaces and the built environment made both more unique.

Today, Shir is the director of Save the Hills of Jerusalem, which is fighting to save precisely the open spaces she studied. Her confidence to lead this organization is largely thanks to her master’s degree. Besides gaining planning skills, her research took her deep into the historical record, as well as into meetings with contemporary stakeholders and planners.

As a graduate student, Shir went to Copenhagen on an exchange program, where she saw the difference good planning makes. Pedestrian-friendly streets, small shops on every corner, and biker-friendly trash bins – it was truly an eye-opening experience. 

“The Urban Clinic gave me tools to examine the build environment. I realized everything we see – someone planned it. And we can always plan differently. There’s no reason Jerusalem can’t be as bike friendly as Copenhagen. If we plan a dense city, with good public transport and prioritize pedestrians, we will have vibrant neighborhoods and reduce reliance on private cars. If we build up the existing city, there will be no need to expand Jerusalem at the expense of its beautiful open spaces.”

To read about Shir’s experience in the Urban Clinic, click here. 

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Shir Gilo

Making Neighborhoods More Walkable

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Shir Gilo

 

Shir Gilo first encountered the Urban Clinic when she participated in a public tour, and it left a great impression upon her. She loved how the Clinic connected theory with reality on the ground, integrating people’s lives with planning. Later, when choosing a graduate program, Shir found herself drawn to the possibility of combining theory and practice, developing social solutions alongside physical ones – and creating a better city.

She enrolled in the Hebrew University’s master’s program in Urban Planning and eventually took the Urban Clinic’s course. She decided to work on a project that had been proposed to the Clinic – developing a solution for Pisgat Zeev, neighborhood in northern Jerusalem plagued by morning traffic jams.

After some serious legwork, observing and meeting with stakeholders, it was decided to focus on two adjacent schools, where administrators and parents were committed to encouraging walking.

“There are many benefits to walking to school. The kids become more familiar with their neighborhood, it can be a social experience, they learn to solve problems, develop independence, take responsibility, get exercise, and so much more. Worldwide, it is common for students to walk to school, often in organized groups. There is no reason that Israeli schoolchildren cannot walk like their peers in Japan, England, and Canada.”

Shir, working with her classmate, Devora, got to work: They plotted student addresses in a geographic information system (GIS), in order to identify the best possible route for the largest number of students, avoiding steep inclines. They distributed a questionnaire and learned that some kids already walked, while other parents were interested in making a change. At the same time, they learned that the neighborhood had walking paths, but these were situated on side streets, often set back from the road.  

Ultimately, Shir and Devora identified three different walking paths – and suggested ways to improve each one. These ranged from physical changes (crosswalks, speed bumps), community adaptations (crossing guards, walking groups), and proposed regulations (speed limits, strict ticketing of cars parked on the sidewalk).

After such an intensive process, They submitted her proposals to Pisgat Zeev’s neighborhood planner. But Shir wasn’t done. She decided to write one of her seminar papers on encouraging walkability, specifically in hilly cities. Motivated to make an impact, she submitted her final paper to the neighborhood and regional planners, the Urban Clinic, and the Jerusalem municipality.

“The Urban Clinic is demanding; it sets very high standards. You can’t just sit back and learn – you need to work hard. Dr. Emily Silverman guided me every step along the way. It was, by far, the best experience I had at the Hebrew University.”

To read about Shir’s environmental work advocating for the Jerusalem hills, click here.

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Sowing, Harvesting & Laughing Together

SP Ethiopian Farmers Alt Text

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6:40am. A minibus pulls up, and twenty-six Hebrew University pile in. Some are ready to go, while others are still half-asleep. Everyone aboard, the minibus heads westward. As the sun rises, the students begin to chat, half Hebrew, half English.

The minibus heads to the Joseph Marguleas Experimental Farm near the Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment. The group is a mix of first year Israeli BSc students and international MSc students. Once a week, they travel to the Experimental Farm to work alongside farmers who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia.

These farmers, aged 65-92, have been at their plots since dawn. Back in Ethiopia, they lived off the land, but this connection was broken when they moved to Israel. In 2016, Hebrew University Prof. Prof. Alon Samach offered plots to eight farmers, and the project took root. Today, the program has grown to include some forty farmers who tend to a variety of crops.

Once a week, the Hebrew University students work alongside the Ethiopian famers, as part of their degree program. In exchange for their help with the heavy lifting, the students gain hands-on experience. After tending to the crops, everyone comes together for a workshop.

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When Life Gives You Grapes

Roi Alford

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When Life Gives You Grapes

Roi Alford is a second-year graduate student in the Agriculture, Natural Resources & Environment program at the Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

Roi grew up in the lower Galilee and has always loved nature. He was drawn to sustainability long before climate change was in the headlines, and thus pursued an undergraduate degree in biology. When he began exploring opportunities for graduate studies, he contacted Prof. Yael Mishael at the Hebrew University’s Smith Faculty.

From his first visit, Roi felt at home. The environment was welcoming, and the students and researchers immediately made him feel comfortable. Prof. Mishael’s lab works with nano-scale clay composites and polymers to remove pollutants from water; Roi is applying this technique to remove one particular toxin – Ochratoxin A – from wine and grape juice.

Ochratoxin A (OTA) is a naturally occurring toxin that is produced by certain molds, and it often plagues food. While a single dose is harmless, continued exposure may be carcinogenic and has been linked to kidney problems. In fact, current regulations ban anything more than the scantest traces of OTA in food. Since the toxin is capable of surviving pressing and fermentation, wineries are often forced to discard entire batches of grape juice and wine – wasting resources, time, and money.

Roi’s is working on developing a material that would filter out the toxin, resulting in a clean, healthy, and marketable product. One reason Roi’s work is so important is the apparent correlation between global warming and an increase in OTA – indicating that the problem will only get worse.

"The work at the Smith Faculty combines cutting-edge research and innovative thinking alongside the aim of making our world a better place. I feel lucky to be conducting my research in this environment. We were able to develop materials with the potential for industrial application, which would decrease food waste as well as improve public health."

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Ofer Levin of GTI: “The Beit She’an excavation open a window on another aspect of the past”

Photo by AG
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" src="/profiles/openscholar/modules/contrib/wysiwyg/plugins/break/images/spacer.gif" title="<--break-->">Beit She’an, a small city in Israel’s periphery with a population of some 20,000 and located in the north at the meeting point of the Jordan River Valley and the Jezreel Valley, is known by many today as a site where infiltrations from Jordan used to occur. However, the name Beit She’an — the modern city was established in 1949 — has an illustrious ancient past that dates back to 4000 BCE and is mentioned in the Bible (I Samuel 31:10).

The ancient city’s location, amid fertile agricultural land and an abundance of springs in a mostly barren area at a then-international crossroads, meant that Beit She’an was a city of paramount importance in the biblical period and also later in the Byzantine period when it was the capital of the late Roman province which was known (circa 400 CE) as Palestina Secunda or NysaScythopolis. Today, the glorious remains of this forgotten past of the Roman and Byzantine periods — the Roman theater, mosaic floor, baths, colonnaded streets — are enclosed in the Beit She’an National Park and allow for a fascinating journey back through time.

The Beit She’an excavation project was initiated by the late Prof. Yoram Tsafrir who passed away in 2015. GTI Fund financial strategist Ofer Levin was a generous supporter of Prof. Tsafrir and his excavation, including towards the many years that he devoted to publishing the project’s final research reports.

Ofer Levin’s support for the project included providing the funds to locate and gather the relevant artifacts; and to recruit specialists to complete specific research of items such as ceramics, coins, inscriptions, engravings etc. In terms of publication, Volume 3A of this highly edifying project by Dr. Benjamin Arubas is currently in the advanced stages of editing; and the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archeology will be publishing an accompanying Qedem Report.

“The Hebrew University and its Institute of Archeology have been at the forefront of research in Israel for years. The Beit She’an excavation project reveals another aspect of the past and helps us gain a better and clearer understanding of the lifestyles of the ancient inhabitants of this country,” says Ofer Levin.

*Photo by AG

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Ending the Year on a High Note: The Street Law Project

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The Street Law Project works with youngsters who have been convicted, as part of their court-mandated rehabilitation plan, as well as care cases – children removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. The year usually ends with a large production: a mock trial, written by law students and the teens and staged before parents, probation officers, other guests, and judges – members of HU’s Faculty of Law.

This past year, 45 youngsters were in the program, divided into three groups. They participated in weekly workshops run by students in the Rights of Youth at Risk Clinic on the Mt. Scopus campus. The Coronavirus struck just as they were scheduled to begin preparing the mock trial.

During the shutdown, the law students tried to maintain contact via phone calls or Zoom, despite the teens differential access to technology and the internet. Within each group, a core of participants continued meeting, yet the mock-trial was a lost cause. The clinic encouraged the students to think of an alternative project, to end the year on a high note.

The group of East Jerusalem youth, led by law students Hanan Hneif, Francis Tuma, and Mona Gawi, decided to focus on case studies. They divided participants into smaller groups, and each analyzed a separate scenario dealing with sexual assault, fraud, freedom of expression, or the penal code. The teens outlined how the law required them to act, their rights, and more. At the group’s final meeting, which took place on campus, each group presented their case study and fielded questions.

Hanan, Francis, and Mona also prepared a game show to summarize the year and distributed certificates. Each teen was given the opportunity to share how the program had impacted them.

Law students Smadar Laufer and Adiel Zanzouri led a West Jerusalem group of teens. They were inspired by a question they’d posed earlier in the year, both to their peers and the teens: How do you see the law? While students saw the law as a tool for empowerment, the teens saw the law as controlling and belittling. Thus, the students asked the teens to think of a law they disagreed with and develop a legal argument to support their position. The topics ranged from animal rights, the LGBT community, and the mandate to wear a protective mask. The teens gained experience applying the law in support of their own beliefs. The event took place in the largest auditorium, enabling parents to support their children while also socially distancing.

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Eliminating Services, Closing Boarding Schools

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As the first shut-down went into effect, NGOs and national programs that serve at-risk youth were eliminated, including counselors, and social workers – leaving youngsters without anyone to turn to. Additionally, the first shutdown started right after Purim vacation, when many of the children, who study at boarding schools, were on break.

Confusion ensued. First, they were first told not to come back. Next they were told they could come back, on condition that they remain in their rooms, in isolation, for two weeks. As a result, many children decided not to return to school, remaining either in their at-risk homes or in the streets.

"I was removed from home and sent to a boarding school. But now the opposite is true – I’ve grown used to school and feel at home there, and you’re sending me back to the home that you removed me from."

-  R, 17 years old

The Rights of Youth at Risk Clinic, together with the Ramat Gan College of Law’s clinic, filed case in the Supreme Court against the Ministry of Education. Even before the hearing, the MoE announced it would ease restrictions and allow for more flexibility.

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Helping Connect Students to Remote Learning

Stock photo student computer
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Over the last few years, the Clinic staff and students have been representing the children of a particular family in care cases (children removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect). Mere days before the lockdown, one the siblings was released from a psychiatric hospital, and he was determined to close educational gaps that had accrued. Within days, schools transitioned to online learning, but he lacked a computer through which to connect to his teachers and lessons.

Arielle Elkayam and Tair Atias, two law students familiar with the family, decided to help find a computer. They tried everything: the municipality, the family’s social worker, the Department of Welfare and Social Services – nothing. They tried every telephone number and email address associated with the public-private partnership A Computer for Every Child – nada.

Eventually they succeeded. A large high-tech company was donating old computers to needy students, and one reached Arielle and Tair’s client. But their search led them to realize that the Coronavirus had transformed unequal access to technology into unequal access to education. Thousands of Israeli children couldn’t realize their right to an education – and the State was unable, or unwilling, to step in.

The enormity of the challenge didn’t faze them. If anything, Tair and Ariel were even more determined to raise awareness and advance solutions. Together with a Hebrew University social work student named Zohar Galil, they are taking a two-fold approach.

First, by helping the Tamid Project – which was, at the time, one of the only organizations in Israel addressing this need. Run by Jerusalem teenagers who established the non-profit when they were 13, they have collected, refurbished, and distributed over 5,600 computers to needy families. The law students helped publicize the Tamid Project, including a visit to the Knesset and bringing local and national politicians to volunteer with the project.

Second, Ariel, Tair, and Zohar continued researching and collecting evidence of the problem with hopes of influencing policy. They discovered that the most comprehensive document submitted to the Knesset had been written by a University of Haifa legal clinic, which had also petitioned the Supreme Court on this matter, along with the Association of Civil Rights in Israel. The Hebrew University trio contacted the petitioners and shared everything they’d discovered about the scope of the problem in Israel and comparisons with other countries.

"We truly felt that we were implementing our clinical studies, bridging between the written law and the law in action. When we realized that many European governments spent tens of millions of Euros at the outbreak of the pandemic, while the Israeli government didn’t even have a plan, we knew we had to help ensure equal access to education. Thanks to the efforts of many, many people, the government now realizes the scope of the problem and is working to resolve it. We’re glad to have helped raise awareness, including providing information to the court petitioners."

- Arielle Elkayam & Tair Atias

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Protecting the Rights of At-Risk Youth - In Times of Crisis

Shiran, Head of Clinic
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In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.

- UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, article 3

 

In ordinary times, participants in the Rights of Youth at Risk Clinic offers legal aid and representation, run programs and youth centers, and advocate for policy reforms.

Yet these are not ordinary times. Without detracting from the Coronavirus as a public health threat, the pandemic has also claimed many social casualties. Some of its first victims were at-risk youngsters, whose already precarious position was further destabilized as Israel geared towards a shut-down.  During the first shutdown (March-May 2020), the Rights of Youth at Risk Clinic rose to the occasion - more than once.

Contesting Fines for Being Outdoors

During the lock-down citizens were required to stay within 100 meters of their homes. For at-risk children, home may be an unstable, unsafe, or even non-existent place. As a result, many of these youngsters were fined hundreds of shekels for being outside. Besides an utter lack of understanding of these children’s circumstances, these fines are astronomically high for families who may rely on public housing or cannot always afford food. Adv. Shiran Reichenberg, who heads the clinic, along with others helped approximately 25 children combat their fines. Six months later, they have heard nothing. Recently, the clinic filed an official request with the police demanding an explanation where things stand.

"We shine the spotlight on those children and youngsters who are otherwise invisible – Corona or no Corona. Yet today their rights are being violated more than ever, and they are in dire need of protection. The Clinic’s role is to protect these children and speak up on their behalf."

  - Adv. Shiran Reichenberg, Head of the Rights of Youth at Risk Clinic

To learn more about the Rights of Youth at Risk Clinic:

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Piecing Together the Puzzle: A New Protein-Based Treatment for the Coronavirus

Corona Research Ofer M
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Prof. Ofer Mandelboim is an immunology and cancer researcher at the Faculty of Medicine. His usual areas of interest include studying how viruses manage to evade detection by the immune system, including influenza, CMV, HIV/AIDS, HMPV, and more.

Very early in the pandemic, scientists discovered that the Coronavirus expresses spike proteins that bind to receptors (proteins) found on human lung cells – scientifically known as ACE2. After entering the cell, the virus uses human cells to replicate and spread, leading to symptoms (e.g. coughing) and the infection of additional patients. 

Pieces of a Puzzle

It is helpful to think about viruses, receptors, and our immune system as pieces of a puzzle. Each virus has a specific shape, enabling it to exclusively bind with certain receptors. On the flip side, our immune system develops antibodies that are a perfect fit against the viruses and other pathogens it encounters, blocking their ability to infect our bodies.

Prof. Mandelboim is familiar with ways to employ decoy proteins to protect patients from autoimmune diseases and decided to tackle SARS-CoV-2 using the same approach. Along with PhD students Abigael Chaouat, Inbal Kol, Orit Berhani, and a team of researchers from the Israel Institute of Biological Research (IIBR), Prof.  Mandelboim developed a two-part preventative treatment comprised of soluble proteins.

1) The first part is composed of the extracellular part of ACE2. This protein binds with the spike proteins of the Coronavirus, rendering them incapable of binding to the lungs and infecting our cells.

2) The second part binds to the ACE receptor, thereby preventing the virus from infecting the cells in our lungs.  

Working with the IIBR, Prof. Mandelboim tested this treatment on cell cultures, and then on transgenic mice – using live Coronavirus. (The mouse ACE2 does not interact with the coronavirus spike protein and thus mice cannot be infected. Transgenic mice expressing human ACE2 have been developed as a rapid platform for research. In mice, infection inevitably leads to death). Prof. Mandelboim and his team, together with the IIBR, tested the components separately and combined. Between the two of them, the injected spike protein (blocking ACE2) was more effective, with a survival rate of 50%.

A Whole New Approach

This treatment is not a vaccine, because it does not activate the immune system to generate antibodies. Instead, it is a cure, because the proteins can hinder the spread of the infection and ultimately inhibit disease progression. It is an entirely new approach, which might prove an effective stopgap measure to simply halt the spread of the Coronavirus. Given that Prof. Mandelboim’s treatment is comprised of the actual proteins from our body and virus, it is probably safe to inject. Yet this is precisely the reason why the proteins and their production process cannot be patented – they are entirely naturally occurring.

"Looking ahead, the biggest challenge is mass-producing these proteins and beginning human trials. Both these are outside my scope of expertise, but I’m extremely hopeful because I’ve proven an easy, safe method of protection against Coronavirus infection."

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Developing Innovative Methods for 3D Printing

Omri R
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Omri Rulf is studying towards a Master of Science in chemistry at the Hebrew University. As an undergraduate student of materials engineering, he explored 3D printing with conductive materials – research that left him hungry for more advanced challenges. 

At the Institute of Chemistry, Omri joined a laboratory that studies the application of organic and inorganic materials to the fields of 3D functional printing, solar energy, and bio-medical systems. 

Omri’s research focuses on developing new inks that can be used in digital light processing, a method of 3D printing that is activated by light. Current methods use photo (light) initiators, which are less healthy for medical purposes. Instead, Omri’s inks use thermal initiators, resulting in a healthier product.  

"My research is progressing nicely, and we’ve already achieved a proof of concept. I’m excited to be at the forefront of such an innovative field, knowing that my research will be applicable to bio-printing, drug delivery systems, dentistry, and more.

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Social Isolation & Our Brains

Coroa Research Shahar
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Dr. Shahar Arzy is a cognitive neuroscientist at the Faculty of Medicine and a cognitive neurologist at the Hadassah Medical Center. In the time that has passed since the outbreak of the pandemic, two things have become clear: First, the Coronavirus isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and even the much-anticipated vaccine may not be a silver bullet. Second, future pandemics may force us back into a Corona-era lifestyle. In Dr. Arzy’s eyes, the most significant change has been the physical distancing from other people, and especially loved ones, and, in particular, the social isolation of the elderly, chronically ill, and immunosuppressed.

"We know that certain populations are more susceptible to the Coronavirus. Yet in an attempt to physically protect them from disease, we’ve isolated them from their social support networks: their friends and families. This is especially true for retirees, whose social lives largely revolve around seeing people outside of their homes, and those suffering from cognitive impairments, who need external stimulation."

Me, Myself, and I – And Everyone Else 

Dr. Arzy and his team at the Neuropsychiatry Lab at the Hebrew University set out to understand how to best help these vulnerable populations. In the lab, the researchers (including computer scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and clinicians) use functional neuroimaging (fMRI) and computational methods to understand the ways in which the brain identifies others in relation to the “self.” For example, in a study led by Dr. Michael Peer, then a PhD student in the lab, they used an algorithm to map subjects’ Facebook friends and then studied how the brain codes our social network, each friend’s proximity to our “self,” and each friend’s characteristics. 

In the context of the Coronavirus, Mordechai Hayman, a brilliant electrical engineer and an MD-PhD student in the Neuropsychiatry Lab, asked how the brain interprets “social proximity.” He defined four groups and raised hypotheses of different ways in which they could be organized around, and in relation, to the “self.” 

1) The “self” 
2) Our closest circle of friends & family
3) Acquaintances (based on the notion that we evolved to live in groups of ~150 people, with whom we cooperate and rely on for our physical, social, and psychological needs)
4) Celebrities (a stranger with whom we feel close) 

In the study, subjects performed a number of social tasks while undergoing fMRI scans. Analyzing the results with machine learning techniques, the researchers discovered two interesting things. First: our brains perceive celebrities as the farthest from our “self” and the real people in our lives (close friends and acquaintances), despite the ease at which we “connect” with celebrities through headlines and social media. Second: while asked to imagine different people in our lives, our brains made little distinction between significant others and acquaintances.

"The fMRI scans showed that our brains cannot be fooled – celebrities serve no social purpose in our lives and cannot be a stand-in for a social network during shutdowns. On the other hand, in certain aspects, our brain treats everyone we actually know similarly – regardless of the degree of involvement in each other’s lives."

Tools for Coping with Social Isolation  

Today, digital platforms such as Zoom are heavily relied upon to socialize. Yet with all the advantages that technology brings to our life, it simply cannot replace real-life encounters. The most significant finding to emerge from Dr. Arzy and Mordechai Hayman’s study is the importance of all social ties, whether a neighborly check-in or chatting with an acquaintance at the grocery store. Another way to help combat social isolation is through tangible, 3D objects. For example, a grandchild’s art project can have a powerful impact – even if delivered by mail. 

At the same time, given the prevalence of digital platforms and their immense potential for connecting people, Dr. Arzy aims to identity ways to tweak and improve these platforms, to optimize and monitor social engagement. 

There’s an App for That 

Dr. Arzy’s previous research on Alzheimer’s patients led him to develop a digital application that enables the mapping and quantification of social networks. The group is now working on creating a more extensive product, one that analyzes one’s social network while taking into account the proximity of family, digital skills, nature and frequency of contact, and more. This product will help remind members of a given network when and how to reach out, resulting in an optimized, tailor-made communication plan – based in the social ecology of the person in the center.

"The Coronavirus has disoriented our lives, and we all face insurmountable difficulties. Yet let us not forget those for whom disorientation is part and parcel of their daily lives. At the Hebrew University and Hadassah we have the privilege to be able to help these people through our clinical practice and research. We hope our efforts can contribute, even a little, to the well-being of these vulnerable population, now more than ever."

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University Students and the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Prof. Miriam SchiffProf. Ruth Pat-Horenczyk, and Prof. Emeritus Rami Benbenishty study trauma at the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare. They belong to the Resilience Research Group, which Prof. Pat-Horenczyk heads, and have a long history of collaborating. Therefore, it was a natural decision to conduct a joint study on the consequences of the Coronavirus crisis upon Hebrew University students, exploring their resilience and growth.

Their first study was conducted during the peak of the first wave. One aspect of the study focused on stress associated with media exposure to the Coronavirus, and revealed that media exposure and media-related stress can be perceived as possible risk factors for impaired functioning and coping. It has been submitted for publication.

"University students are not usually seen as a vulnerable group. But between losing their jobs, having their study routines and habits upended, not seeing their friends on campus, and many of them moving back home, students have been subjected to a variety of factors that may contribute to stress and difficulties in their functioning, education, and familial relations."

Close to Home: A Survey of Hebrew University Students

At the same time that the researchers were preparing their study, Hebrew University Rector, Prof. Barak Medina, and the Dean of Students, Prof. Guy Harpaz, contacted the researchers – to hear how students were coping and identify students who needed help. They opened the door to a University-wide survey, in which 4,700+ Hebrew University students across faculties and disciplines participated.

The study revealed the students’ pressing concerns. Their top three concerns were when the emergency situation would end, the virus’ rapid spread, and restrictions to their daily lives. On a personal level, students were worried about their families, financial matters, and loneliness. Yet despite these concerns, the more support the student received, the better they were able to cope.

"It is a badge of honor for the Hebrew University that students supported the University’s Coronavirus policies, much more than national or governmental policies. This may be due to the fact that these policies were tailored to their specific circumstances, while the University also reached out to offer academic, emotional, and financial support."

Interestingly, while Arab students and students in quarantine emerged as especially vulnerable, students who self-identified as either ultra-Orthodox or parents were more resilient.

Based on their findings, the researchers recommended creating a University support system to help address students’ emotional and academic needs, while taking steps to ensure that the students continue to have faith in the University’s policies.

Expanding the Study: In Israel & Abroad

This study inspired colleagues around the world, who have adopted and disseminated the Hebrew University researchers’ questionnaire among university students in Europe, South America, and the United States. They have already published a comparative study with Ukraine. The questionnaire has also been used at research universities and academic colleges across Israel. 

The researchers are now conducting a second-stage study in conjunction with other research universities in Israel. To date, they have collected 14,000+ responses. Given the amount of time that has lapsed since the pandemic’s outbreak, its cumulative effect, and long-term consequences, the second-stage study will be expanded to include attitudes towards dropping out, emotional difficulties (e.g. depression and anxiety), coping, and personal growth.

"Although many students report emotional difficulties, many reported receiving support, trusting the university’s handling of the crisis, and showing growth under these difficult circumstances. We hope that by shedding light on the risk and protective factors that relate to the students’ ability to cope and their self-reported need for help can guide the development of appropriate support services."

 

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Renana Atia, Communications

Renana Atia
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Exploring Questions of Representation and Stereotypes

Renana Atia is a doctoral student in the Smart Family Institute of Communications at the Hebrew University. She was educated in both ultra-Orthodox and National Religious schools, and later completed her national service working with people from diverse backgrounds. 

Moving between different worlds, Renana has always been interested in questions of representation – specifically, how the media (mis)represents  certain groups (e.g., women, religious communities). She chose to study political science and communications at the Hebrew University, hoping to gain practical skills for creating social change. Yet early in her studies, she was drawn to research, as she discovered the importance and joy of methodologically studying social issues. By the end of her first year, she had decided to pursue a graduate degree.

Renana eventually earned a master’s degree in political communication with a minor in gender studies at the Lafer Center for Women and Gender Studies. At the same time, she began working as a teaching assistant for both undergraduate and graduate courses. Beyond gaining and honing her own teaching skills, Renana was thankful for the opportunity to help shape and guide the younger students in their own academic journeys.

Today, Renana is a doctoral student, conducting research under the supervision of Dr. Meital Balmas-Cohen and Prof. Eran Halperin.

"I study the cognitive motivation necessary for changing perceptions of stereotypes, and the possibility that individuals who do not adhere to stereotypes may contribute to minimizing inter-group tensions."

Her research will employ quantitative methods and be rooted in data from  several countries, including Israel, the United States, and Germany. Renana greatly enjoys her studies and is particularly thankful for the Faculty of Social Sciences' support, which ranges from lectures on publishing, assistance editing English texts, and information about post-doctoral opportunities.

Outside of her studies, Renana practices archery and is involved in an organization that aims to increase women’s participation in the sport, including women who are either at-risk or come from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Looking forward, she hopes for a career that combines research and teaching.

"The Hebrew University, and in particular the Faculty of Social Science, have provided me with amazing support, while also granting me the freedom to conduct my doctoral research. The Hebrew University has never ceased to challenge me.

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Novel Sugar Substitutes

Strawberries and Sugar
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Dr. Amiram Goldblum is a Professor Emeritus of Computational Medicinal Chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem School of Pharmacy - Institute for Drug Research. Among his many discoveries is his unique, prize-winning algorithm, Iterative Stochastic Elimination (ISE) (see box). While ISE has been used to rapidly identify potential drugs, it can also be used to identify other useful chemical substances – such as sugar substitutes.

Ah, Sugar Sugar, You’ve Got Me Wanting You

Worldwide, diabetes is on the rise. The number of diabetics nearly quadrupled between 1980 and 2014, affecting 422 million people. In addition, diabetes often causes other ailments, including kidney failure, blindness, heart attacks, strokes, and more.

As early as the late 1950s, and rapidly increasing in recent decades, artificial sweeteners appeared on the market. Generally speaking, these can be divided into three chemical “families”: peptides, sulphonamides, and saccharides/glycosides. Despite their chemical differences, they are all much sweeter than sugar, while also leaving a bitter aftertaste.

Sweets for My Sweet (Receptors)

We can taste sweetness thanks to the presence of TAS1R2/TAS1R3 proteins in our bodies, mostly on our tongue and mouth. A similar protein transmits the umami (savory) flavors, and it is entirely possible that sugar and sugar substitutes also transmit their effect through these receptors. In addition, twenty different proteins can sense bitter tastes, and it is assumed that some of them may cause the bitter aftertaste associated with substitute sugars, despite the different structures of the “bitter taste” proteins.

To solve this problem, Prof. Goldblum has constructed computational models that are capable of distinguishing between sweet, umami, and bitter tastes, and then screens millions of commercially available molecules through these models,, searching for those that will affect the sweet receptor alone (and not the bitter receptors).

"By identifying molecules that resemble sugar’s sweet taste but without its negative and dangerous impact on our health, I hope to both offer consumers a better product, while also contribute to the reduction of diabetes worldwide."

          - Prof. Goldblum

Once detecting these molecules, Prof. Goldblum will take his findings to the lab, along with a partner from the Technion. They will test the best molecules on mice, examining whether they prefer the substitute or the real thing, as well as the effect of both real and sugar substitutes on their movements, energy expenditure, and metabolism. Needless to say, mice will not have the final say – after all, they taste sweets differently than humans.

Just a Spoonful of Sugar

The first step towards FDA approval is filing an application for an investigational new drug. The molecule will be tested on a small group of healthy people to determine it is not toxic in several dose alternatives. Once approved, a panel of taste-testers will help determine the exact quantity required to obtain the same sweetness as a spoonful of sugar. The new molecule will likely be measured in milligrams, compared with the packets commonly found in restaurants and cafes, which contain 2-4 grams of sugar.

It is not hard to imagine the wide-spread market appeal of such a product. With diabetes on the rise, a reduction of sugar consumption has the potential to save and improve the lives of millions worldwide. Luckily for those with a sweet tooth, dieting may never be easier.

Information about Prof. Goldblum’s research on potential drugs for the Coronavirus is available here.

ISE is a generic algorithm capable of solving extremely complex combinatorial problems, such as finding the best solutions to a problem which has an enormous number of possible solutions that are not amenable to full examination by any means. The algorithm examines many possibilities and rejects possibilities in several “rounds,” until the number of combinations is small enough to be fully computed. The significant advantage of this computational tool is its ability to suggest in silico (computerized) good solutions in a very short time, which would be impossible to perform in the lab. For drug research, it has already shortened the time for discovering new candidate drugs from years to months, and even weeks. This innovation earned him the Hebrew University’s Kaye Innovation Award for 2017.
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The Career Center

The Career Center
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Seeking to provide its students not only with a stellar academic and professional education but also with assistance in finding suitable and fulfilling employment following their degree studies, in October 2019 the Hebrew University opened the Hebrew University (HUJI) Career Center, which operates in conjunction with the Student Union and partners in the Jerusalem municipality.

In the tradition of universities in the United States, the new HUJI Career Center offers Hebrew University students and graduates a range of services, from individual career counseling, through lectures and workshops designed to hone job market skills, to large-scale mediated encounters with potential employers.

The Hebrew University is seeking to more firmly establish the existing activities, some currently funded from various temporary sources, and to expand the activities and services offered to University students (including targeted services for specific populations such as Arab and Haredi students), thus providing all students with the optimal preparation for securing appropriate, rewarding employment following their graduation.

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The Computational Search for a Needle in a Haystack

Needle in a Haystack
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Rapidly Identifying Molecules for a Coronavirus Drug

Dr. Amiram Goldblum is a Professor Emeritus of Computational Medicinal Chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem School of Pharmacy - Institute for Drug Research. Among his many discoveries is his unique, prize-winning algorithm, Iterative Stochastic Elimination (ISE). (See box) 

A Library of the Best Molecules 

Prof. Goldblum applies the ISE classification algorithm to produce “libraries” of candidate drugs by focusing on the molecule’s chemical properties (rather than structure), while also calculating the chances of each molecule to perform as expected. In this way, it becomes possible to rapidly screen millions of existing molecules and identify the best ones for curing or treating COVID-19 patients.

"The algorithm is a statistical tool; it determines the likelihood that a given molecule will work as predicted. In past projects, the chances have ranged from 1:10 to 9:10 – but even at the lower end, the ISE algorithm is capable of doing more in less time than any single scientist could accomplish testing molecules in a lab, one by one."

          - Prof. Goldblum

Prof. Goldblum’s computational discoveries will then be tested by the creative and innovative synthetic biology platform designed by Dr. Lior Nissim. The scientists will be able to test candidate molecules on viral proteins using engineered gene circuits. The most effective molecules, referred to as a “focused library,” will be ready for testing on the live virus when the Hebrew University’s bio-safety level 3 lab (BSL-3) opens later this year. The two labs are cooperating on one of the most advanced drug discovery projects worldwide against COVID-19.   

Multi-Targeting the Coronavirus 

Prof. Goldblum and Dr. Nissim are examining a multi-targeting approach, selecting candidate molecules that would block simultaneously at least two of the following:

•    The ACE2 receptors, through which the virus must interact to enter the human body

•    The spikes on the surface of the virus, which bind with the ACE2 receptors

•    The viral protease which enables the virus to multiply and spread within the human cells  

The reasons for this approach are manifold. The main alternative would be a cocktail combining 2+ drugs. Yet it is well known that drugs often interfere with one another. Thus, to avoid wasting the precious time and resources in discovering and developing individual molecules that might not work together effectively, Prof. Goldblum and Dr. Nissim are seeking a 2-in-1, or even 3-in-1, molecule. Another reason is that in cancers, bacteria, and viral diseases the cells divide quickly, and targets often mutate – rendering drugs ineffective. It is less likely that two targets will co-mutate in such a way that both will become drug resistant.   

Looking Ahead

It is impossible to overstate the importance of accelerating the search for a drug and vaccine for COVID-19. Prof. Goldblum is initially limiting his search to drugs that either have prior FDA approval or are in pre-clinical or clinical trials (“repurposing” existing drugs). To date, his research group has identified 70 repurposed candidates for blocking at least two of the crucial SARS-CoV-2 proteins. In the next step, the group will search for new candidates among more than 150 million molecules that may provide a cure and could be synthesized or purchased in weeks.

"One significant advantage of computational research is testing drugs in silico (computers) before they get to the test tube. We can test millions of molecules and pick a handful of the best ones, which will be tested against the virus. Computational tools are significantly shortening the discovery time of a cure."

          - Prof. Goldblum

The most efficient drugs, those proven to directly kill the virus in cells/tissue, will then be tested on infected mice. Public pressure has resulted in the FDA loosening its regulations, and a successful molecule could be approved for advanced clinical studies and tested on real patients within a few months.

Information about Prof. Goldblum’s research on sugar substitutes is available here.

More information about Dr. Nissim’s SARS-CoV-2 research is available here.

ISE is a generic algorithm capable of solving extremely complex combinatorial problems, such as finding the best solutions to a problem which has an enormous number of possible solutions that are not amenable to full examination by any means. The algorithm examines many possibilities and rejects possibilities in several “rounds,” until the number of combinations is small enough to be fully computed. The significant advantage of this computational tool is its ability to suggest in silico (computerized) good solutions in a very short time, which would be impossible to perform in the lab. For drug research, it has already shortened the time for discovering new candidate drugs from years to months, and even weeks. This innovation earned him the Hebrew University’s Kaye Innovation Award for 2017.

 

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From Street Dweller to Law Student

Yedidia Ashur
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Yedidia Ashur grew up in an ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem. In his mid-teens be began straying from the religious lifestyle, eventually leaving home. He lived on the streets or with friends, worked whatever jobs he could find, and often got by on strangers’ kindness.

In the spring of 2018, when he was 22 years old, Yedidia received a phone call out of the blue. A stranger was on the other side of the line, inviting him to his home for the Passover Seder. This man, an accomplished academic and engineer, had received the number from a friend who had hired Yedidia for an odd job. During the Seder, Yedidia shared his life story. Immediately after the holiday, the man called Yedidia again, drove to pick him up, and took him to the Hebrew University. He helped with the bureaucracy and paperwork – and Yedidia was enrolled in the Joseph Saltiel University Preparatory Center’s program.

"I felt that I’d met Elijah the Prophet."

The Joseph Saltiel University Preparatory School prepares youngsters for academic study, replacing the need to complete the matriculation exams. The program offers six specialized tracks, and graduates receive preferential consideration for admission to the Hebrew University.

The last time Yedidia was in school, he’d been a 14-year-old yeshiva student. Now, he worked harder than he’d ever worked before, studying up to 18 hours a day. Besides attending classes, Yedidia received extensive support from a slew of tutors. He met regularly with an English teacher who gave him private lessons and helped with his homework. During the fall semester he, along with a few other students, met with a math tutor. After getting the hang of it, he left the group and received private math tutoring from an economics student. As he was studying in the Social Sciences track, graduation required writing an original research paper. Yedidia wrote about the influence of globalization on soccer violence, supported by a private tutor with whom he met throughout the process.

In addition, the engineer continued to offer help, academic and otherwise. Yedidia was driven – with his eye set on law school. As a youngster living on the street, he’d been taken advantage of by employers, cellphone companies, banks – because he hadn’t known his rights.

"They say that knowledge is power, and this holds even more true for knowledge of the law. I was taken advantage of because I didn’t know my rights. I want to help others who are in my situation – helping them avoid predatory pitfalls."

Mid-year, Yedidia received a generous grant from a donor, enabling him to work less and study more. He eventually graduated from the Saltiel Preparatory Program and was accepted to the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Law. He began his studies this fall, backed by a generous scholarship that covers his tuition and living expenses. He hopes to double major in education, in order to gain additional tools for working with at-risk youth.

Reflecting back on the last few years, Yedidia recalls how higher education wasn’t even on his street-dwelling friends’ radar. They thought he was weird; today, another friend is studying to be a structural engineer, and others are considering following in their footsteps. As for his personal Elijah, he admits that he’s never done such a thing and will likely never do it again. He and Yedidia remain in close contact.

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The First Line of Defense: Selective Capture of the Virus

Corona Research Amir, Micha, Ofra

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Since the outbreak of the pandemic, medical professionals have been at the front lines, upholding the Hippocratic Oath and putting their own lives at risk to help and treat COVID-19 patients. While efforts have been made to ramp up the production of the gold standard of masks, the N95 respirator, shortages persist. Many medical professionals report re-using masks for weeks, or even months. Quite simply, constant exposure and less protection means greater risk. Doctors and nurses, who come into contact with the virus daily, may unknowingly spread the virus beyond their wards, if they remain asymptomatic and undiagnosed.

Three Hebrew University researchers are developing a solution.

A Chemist, a Physicist, and a Pharmacologist Walk into a Lab  

Prof. Micha Asscher is a chemist. Ordinarily he studies different applications of porous silicon and can control for the size of the pores within the material. Prof. Amir Sa’ar is a physicist. Ordinarily he works with nanostructures and is considered to be Israel’s #1 expert on porous silicon. He also researches various applications of optics. Prof. Ofra Benny is a pharmacologist. Ordinarily, she develops nanoparticles for “smart” drug delivery systems, creating nanoparticles of different sizes, tailored for specific purposes.

The scientists are working to develop a patch (sticker) of porous silicon that medical professionals can place inside their face shields, or potentially even within their surgical/N95 masks. The pores will be 120 nanometers in diameter – a perfect fit for the Coronavirus, guaranteeing both the immobilization of the viruses (see image above) and excluding most other particles (e.g. dust) from capture. 

The patch will serve as an alarm system, a Geiger counter for medical staff. At the end of each shift, a technician will examine the patch using a simple optical instrument developed by the researchers to determine whether the pores captured a large number of suspiciously sized particles. If so, the wearer will need to get tested for the Coronavirus and wait for definite results before (hopefully) returning to work.

Needless to say, the scientists are currently working with a dummy nanoparticle – one that mimics the Coronavirus in size but does not pose any danger. Their first milestone, or proof of concept, was quantitatively demonstrating that their optical tools were capable of detecting whether or not the pores had captured any particles (the more particles captured, the higher the optical response). 

Thinking Ahead: The Coronavirus and Beyond

Looking ahead, the researchers hope to develop an even more sophisticated patch – one with diagnostic capabilities. They already know how to apply chemical coatings to the pores and will develop one that binds with the Coronavirus – specifically, to the spike proteins on its surface. These “receptors” would selectively trap nanoparticles based on size and structure, resulting in a highly specific diagnostic test. 

Taking this a step further, it would become possible to design patches whose different-sized pores are coated in varying chemicals, each capable of selectively capturing a specific disease or pathogen. This would prove invaluable today and for any future pandemics. 

Additional applications extend beyond medicine; science is just beginning to understand the toxicity of metal oxide nanoparticles and their negative impact on our health and the environment.

Once developed, porous silicon patches are easy and cheap to produce, making them ideal sensors for a variety of pathogens and pollutants – in developed and third-world countries alike.

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Efrat Dressler, Postdoctral Fellow at Wharton

Efrat Dressler

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Efrat Dressler spent her postdoctoral year at Wharton Business School with all the benefits of being at one of the best business schools in the world.

“It was only once I was at Wharton, and with the benefit of hindsight, that I really understood the JBS’s requirement for its faculty members to have spent time abroad.

“During my year there I enjoyed the variety of faculty seminars, I attended and presented at numerous conferences and I had the opportunity to meet and make connections with tens of academics from other universities. At Wharton alone there are some 30 professors in the Finance Department and another 25 in Accounting.

“I’ll be applying to the JBS later this year and in the meantime, am continuing my postdoctoral research in Jerusalem, including a couple of collaborative projects with professors that I met at Wharton."

"None of this would have been possible without the generous scholarship I received and I’m so grateful for the experience."

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Developing Drought-Tolerant, High-Yielding Tef Varieties

Muluken
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Muluken Demelie Alemu is from Debre Markos, northwest Ethiopia. He holds a bachelor's of science in Crop Production and Protection and a master's of science in Horticulture, both from Haramaya University. Muluken has taught and conducted research at the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture and Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research respectively.

Today, Muluken is a PhD student in Field and Vegetable Crops at the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment. His research aims to establish the basis for developing drought-tolerant, high-yielding tef varieties. Tef is a cereal crop, a major commodity in Ethiopia. To this end, he is growing a large collection of tef genotypes with differing amounts of water, currently in Israel and subsequently in Ethiopia. Muluken will collect and analyze morphological, phenological, and physiological data, as well as conduct DNA analysis to identify drought-tolerant tef genotypes and characterize the mechanisms underlying their superior performance.

"By developing drought-tolerant tef varieties, we will be able to enhance and sustain tef production and productivity. This will help to improve food security, nutrition, and income, especially for those living in drought-prone regions of Ethiopia and worldwide."
 

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It’s All up in the Air: Transmission of the Coronavirus

Nadav and Liraz Research
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Researchers

Dr. Nadav Kashtan is a systems microbiologist who ordinarily studies bacteria, exploring the viability of microorganisms within microscopic droplets on surfaces or in the air.

Dr. Liraz Chai is a chemist whose research ordinarily focuses on the study of bacterial biofilms. In particular, she studies how salts and macromolecules affect the properties of water in biofilms.

As the Coronavirus spread, scientists began racing to understand the virus, its structure, method of infection, and effect on the human body. Dr. Kashtan and Dr. Chai stopped and asked a much more basic question: How does the virus survive the journey between an infected person and an uninfected person?

While the terms droplets and aerosols are now commonly tossed around, Dr. Kashtan and Dr. Chai are taking their questions to the lab – and applying the full force of their, knowledge, tools, and expertise to better understand how the virus is transmitted between people.

Most virologist and epidemiologists are studying the virus itself – without asking how it remains viable as it is transmitted between people. This is a crucial question for flattening the curve and preventing infections in the first place.

-    Dr. Kashtan

Survival Rates in the Lab

In the initial study, which is currently in preprint, Dr. Kashtan compared the virus’s ability to survive in microdroplets composed of water, saliva, and SM buffer (a common laboratory medium) under typical indoor conditions. He discovered that the virus displayed much higher viability rates in dry saliva microdroplets than in the other two media. In other words, outside of the human body, saliva enables the virus to survive suspended in the air (especially in closed rooms) and survive on surfaces. 

This study used a different, safer virus, Phi6, as a surrogate for the Coronavirus. (Phi6 infects bacteria, not humans, and is commonly used to study respiratory diseases). The two viruses are similar in size and structure, including having a lipid membrane and spike proteins. 

What Is It About Saliva? 

To answer this question, Dr. Kashtan joined forces with Dr. Chai. Together, they are now studying the physico-chemical properties of saliva that enable the virus to survive. Dr. Kashtan is contributing his knowledge of microbiology, while Dr. Chai brings her lab’s analytical methods to the table. 

We see value in conducting interdisciplinary research, with each of us contributing from our knowledge to combat this virus. We’re also taking a slightly different approach; rather than search for a cure, we’re asking how the virus survives in the environment – in order to reduce morbidity and mortality rates.

-    Dr. Liraz Chai

To start, they want to screen saliva samples from different people and assess virus survival rates between them (Dr. Kashtan). Then, in order to understand what characterizes saliva samples with high or low survival rates, Dr. Chai will analyze the saliva components: sugars, salts, proteins, and more. Once they’ve the combined their data, they will check for any correlation between composition and viral viability.

Next, they will take two approaches. First, top-down, they will begin eliminating components of saliva, while bottom-up they will start with water and begin adding components. In both cases, they will measure viral viability every step along the way, until identifying which factor(s) enable the virus to survive outside of the human body.

The next step will be devising a method to prevent the survival of the virus in saliva. Who knows? Perhaps the panacea will be a dispenser that automatically sprays the room – or a special chewing gum?  

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Living through a Pandemic: A Child’s Perspective

Child Using Zoom
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From the onset of the pandemic, it has commonly been stated that children are immune or will get only mildly sick if infected with the Coronavirus. While the medical community can debate the empirical truth of that statement, it cannot be denied that living through a pandemic is, quite simply, a difficult and challenging experience. For months, adults have been struggling with medical, financial, social, and existential anxieties – to name a few. How have children been affected? 

A research team at the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare, headed by Professor Asher Ben-Arieh and along with research assistants Sagit Bruck and Hamutal Farkash, set out to explore children’s experiences during these difficult times. They employed a survey developed by Children’s World, an international project studying the well-being of children, in which Prof. Ben-Arieh is a core member. A total of 654 Israeli children, aged 10-16, responded to the questionnaire, which was adapted for current events. The team’s findings were published by the Haruv Institute.

The Children Speak 

The study shows the importance of including children in the conversation and acknowledging that they too are experiencing stressful times. While the majority of children reported knowing about the Coronavirus and having discussed it with an adult, many wanted to learn more about the virus – or just be listened to.

"Children want to be included and they have opinions; adults can learn a lot from listening to them. We believe that including children and taking their viewpoint into consideration when making decisions at the level of the family, school, community, and country is necessary towards developing plans that meet their needs and perspectives."

As any parent knows, children are sponges, thirstily absorbing information from their environment. Thus, children were nearly twice as concerned about other people getting sick, rather than themselves. This perhaps reflects children’s understanding that they are not particularly at risk.

The study serves as a reminder that children’s lives were also upended by the pandemic. Questions about the merit of remote learning aside, nearly half the children reported that school did not play a significant role in their daily lives and that they were unable to study at home. While the majority of students spent some amount of time each day doing schoolwork and helping out at home (siblings, chores), nearly half the children reported experiencing boredom. The vast majority of children reported playing and socializing at home, with only a tiny minority meeting people outside of their homes. 

Compared with a similar study conducted in Israel in 2017-18, children reported feeling less listened to, less satisfied in their lives, and less satisfied in their independence and freedom. In another section, the majority of children reported feeling safe at home, with their family, and in their neighborhoods – but a small percentage did not. These children may be at particular risk from ongoing shutdowns.

With No End in Sight 

Studies carried out by other Children’s Worlds partners have shown similar results, indicating that an entire generation of children are going through similar experiences. With no end to the pandemic in sight, and as Israel enters its second shutdown, this study highlights the importance of listening to children and involving them in discussions and decision-making. Parents should ask children about their feelings, perceptions, concerns, and needs in order to best help them cope during these difficult times. Teachers could also increase their outreach, helping children feel cared for and increase their ability or interest in remote learning.  

Prof. Ben-Arieh and Children’s Worlds are working on a way to combine data from partner countries in order to gain a broader understanding of how the Coronavirus and social distancing have affected children worldwide. Such a study will also enable researchers to differentiate between universal experiences and the influence of local culture/policies. The research team is actively seeking partners and ideas for collaborative studies.

"Our findings support the idea that children’s well-being may be negatively impacted while their countries fight the pandemic. This includes suffering the consequences of social distancing, remote learning, the absence of a daily routine, emotional and mentally coping with boredom, extreme uncertainty and a dwindling sense of security. We’re especially worried about at-risk children, whose situations may go un-checked as they are far from their school and other forms of support."

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Perfectly Poised to Combat Corona: Two Advanced Drug Delivery Systems

Human Cells
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"Great breakthroughs can be neither planned nor predicted, and I’m working hard to be prepared for luck."

Professor Gershon Golomb is a researcher at the School of Pharmacy’s Institute for Drug Research, Faculty of Medicine. His expertise is developing drug delivery systems – especially for the treatment of inflammatory-associated diseases. As the Coronavirus spreads around the world, with no end to the pandemic in sight, two of Prof. Golomb’s projects are perfectly poised to help COVID-19 patients.

Project I: “Kill Corona”

Prof. Golomb’s first project is a clinical study using liposomal alendronate to treat COVID-19 patients. Alendronate is a drug commonly prescribed for treating osteoporosis. Prof. Golomb’s innovation was to wrap the alendronate inside a nanoparticle, a liposome (fat) or polymeric-based nano-particle, thus altering the drug’s path; rather than reaching the bone, it now directly targets the body’s innate immunity system – which causes inflammation. In 2002, Prof. Golomb received the Kaye Innovation Award for his discovery that restenosis (the narrowing of blood vessels) is an inflammatory response and for demonstrating how liposomal alendronate could be used to treat patients. 

His drug has completed phases I, II, and IIb clinical trials for the treatment of restenosis, and has been proven safe and effective for human use – including with diabetics and cardiovascular patients. Along with his partners at the Hadassah Medical Center and Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Prof. Golomb is now hoping to study whether his anti-restenosis drug could help mildly ill COVID-19 patients. They have already received approval from Hadassah’s Helsinki Committee of to proceed with the trial and are awaiting Ministry of Health approval.

Prof. Golomb has 150-200 vials of the drug from his last trial, and the Israeli manufacturer is willing to ensure they have not expired. They hope to recruit 40+ mildly ill patients and begin testing whether the drug can prevent cytokine storms and intubation.

Project II: “Fraunhofer vs. Corona”

Prof. Golomb’s second project is through the Fraunhofer Project Center for Drug Discovery and Delivery at the Hebrew University. Fraunhofer is a German research institute, with approximately 80 research centers worldwide. Their partnership with the Hebrew University focuses on one of the University’s strengths – drug delivery systems.

This collaborative effort is based on employing small interfering RNA (siRNA) for treating the Herpes Simplex virus, by developing nanoparticle that target the virus. Current herpes treatments are limited to alleviating or shortening the cold sore, yet this innovative drug delivery system directly targets the virus – eliminating it completely.

To this end, Fraunhofer has drawn upon its extensive drug library, identifying drugs that might be repurposed to directly target the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Rather than inject patients with large doses and hope for a positive outcome, Prof. Golomb is working to develop a navigator that targets, or has an affinity, to lung cells. If successful, clinicians would be able to administer lower doses with high specificity – and target the Coronavirus directly, while avoiding side effects.

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Caring for Those Who Care for Others: Migrant Care Workers during the Pandemic

Care Worker with Elderly Man
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Jordan Hannink Attal recently graduated from the International Master of Public Health program. Her graduate research and thesis focused on the mental health of migrant care workers (MCWs) – caregivers, primarily of south-east Asian descent, who work as live-in help for elderly Israelis. Little did she know that her graduate thesis would be the first in a series of studies, as it captured a snapshot of MCW life before the pandemic struck. 

Jordan defended her master’s thesis during the first lockdown and began planning her next study almost immediately – Migrant Care Workers’ Psychosocial Status During Israel’s COVID-19 Lockdown, along with coinvestigators Dr. Ido Lurie, MPH and Prof. Yehuda Neumark (her master’s thesis supervisors). Jordan’s study is currently in review, and she is already working on a third study, focused on the post-lockdown period. 

Fostering Trust with the MCW Community 

There are roughly 70,000 MCWs living and working in Israel today, but it is not an easy community to access. For her master thesis, Jordan worked very hard to build trust within the community, working with a partner organization Kav LaOved, a non-profit that protects the rights of disadvantaged workers across sectors. 

MCWs largely come from countries and cultures where the elderly are cared for out of love. The caregivers see and treat their employers as their own family, and outsiders prodding and questioning them are treated with suspicion.

"Sadly, this suspicion runs both ways: during the shutdown, the media warned Israelis to beware of migrant care workers abusing their beloved grandparents – rather than showcasing their care, empathy, and responsibility during these difficult times. In fact, my study showed that these caregivers displayed more self-discipline and adherence to the restrictions than most Israelis."

Findings: A Cause for Concern

A number of findings emerged from Jordan’s study, pointing to cause for concern, especially as Israel enters its second lockdown this year. 

First, the study showed that during the lockdown, MCWs displayed elevated levels of mental distress. According to the World Health Organization, 10% of the population in south-east Asia suffers from mental distress; using this number as a baseline, Jordan was shocked to discover that 40% of MCWs displayed symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

Next, the study revealed that 22% of the MCWs lacked food security. There may be many contributing factors, but Jordan highlights one particular aspect of MCWs’ lives that often goes overlooked: when employers keep a strictly kosher home, many MCWs eat out. During lock-down, MCWs may have lacked the language skills, know-how, and perhaps even funds to order in.  

Between a Rock and a Hard Place 

As noted above, MCWs are protected by Israeli labor laws, but theory rarely meets practice. They are legally mandated to live with their employer, making it challenging, if not outright impossible, to define an 8-hour workday. They are supposed to get a day off (or be paid overtime) but this is left to negotiations between the placement agency, family, and the MCW. 

During the lockdown, many families required that the MCW keep their elderly employer inside or demanded the MCW remain home during their time or day off. De facto, this meant that caregivers were denied their time off, leading to a degradation of their mental health. In addition, MCWs who live (illegally) with their employers in assisted living facilities were trapped whenever such facilities declared independent lockdowns.

Policy Recommendations 

First, although the Ministry of Health translates Coronavirus guidelines to Tagalong and Hindi, these are poorly distributed and not easily accessible on the Ministry’s website – as a result, most MCWs aren’t even aware of their existence. Needless to say, the dissemination of such critical information would enable MCWs to take necessary precautions and encourage adherence. 

In addition, the rules outlining MCWs’ rights, including their work week, time off, and vacations appear online in English alone, presenting a barrier to these workers learning about their rights under the law. 

Next, specific Coronavirus guidelines should be formulated for the MCW community, balancing the need to protect their rights while also preventing transmission of the virus.

"Sadly, migrant care workers are an invisible and abused population in Israel today, despite many families heavily relying on their services and devotion."

Looking forward, Jordan plans to pursue a PhD and continue with research. She’s fostered close ties with Israel’s MCW community and feels responsible to continue bringing the challenges that they face to the fore. Her coinvestigators have presented the study’s findings to a committee within Israel’s largest trade union and various national committees. Kav LaOved remains active in the legal field, using the findings from Jordan’s study to guarantee the protection of this vulnerable population.

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Predicting Non-Adherence to Public Health Directives

Mask and Alcogel

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Dr. Yehuda Pollak is on the faculty of the Seymour Fox School of Education. His research focuses on ADHD, decision-making, and risk-taking. As the Coronavirus spread across Israel and public health guidelines went into effect, Dr. Pollak wondered whether it would be possible to identify predictors of non-adherence to the new restrictions.

"Given that the directives were aimed at halting the spread of the virus, non-adherence could have widespread negative health implications."

Dr. Pollak, along with doctoral student Haym Dayan, Itai Berger, MD, and Talpiot College of Education’s Dr. Rachel Shoham, conducted a digital survey, in which 654 people participated during the most stringent phase of the shutdown (late March-early April). Their study was recently published in Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences. 

Risk-Takers Will Be Risk-Takers… 

Some 29% reported not following the guidelines, with a number of factors correlating to non-adherence. Some were pre-existing: young, male, without children, smokers, high levels of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms, and a history of risk-taking behavior. Additional factors emerged, relating to respondents’ current state: respondents reporting high levels of distress, low exposure to the directives and holding low perceptions of the risk posed by the Coronavirus and the efficacy of the instructions were also less likely to follow the rules. 

While these findings may not be surprising this study was the first to show a correlation between non-adherence to the Coronavirus guidelines and ADHD, psychological distress, and a history of risk-taking behavior.

"From a theoretical perspective, this study showed that factors that lead to other risk-taking behaviors seem to also influence non-adherence to the Coronavirus directives."

A Second Study 

Dr. Pollak and his colleagues conducted a second study as the economy re-opened (mid-May), in which 2,055 people participated. This study revealed additional factors for non-adherence, including a criminal background and an unhealthy lifestyle. 

Interestingly, the second study also showed that among non-adhering individuals, people suffering from underlying medical conditions were no more likely to adhere to the directives – despite their increased vulnerability. The same held for respondents who had lost someone to the virus; intimate knowledge of the risks did not improve adherence.  

This study also focused on the importance of social norms; respondents whose surroundings were non-adherent or tolerated such behavior, were also less likely to follow the directives themselves. 

Contributing to Theoretical Frameworks 

Dr. Pollak sees additional value to this study. As the world copes with an unprecedented medical emergency, these findings contribute to the conceptualization of non-adherence to public health directives using a number of theoretical frameworks, including:

  • Medical non-compliance – the study of patients not following doctors’ orders

  • Risk-taking behavior – the study of drug use, hazardous driving, and more

  • Criminal behavior – criminal activity is both a predictor and outcome of not adhering to such restrictions  

Policy Recommendations

Dr. Pollak has presented these findings to the Ministry of Science and Technology, whose grant supported the second study. He dreams of being able to conduct serological tests on the second cohort, in order to examine whether non-adherence to the public health directives predicts future infection and illness.

"Practically speaking, we recommend that policies be developed and adapted for each sector, to enable the authorities to more effectively intervene."

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Unraveling the Mysteries of the Brain

Shir Filo
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Shir Filo is a PhD student in computational neuroscience at the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC). She was born and raised in Tzurit, a small village in northern Israel, where she enjoyed belonging to a tight-knit, supportive community.   

Drawn to the possibility of solving some of life’s biggest mysteries, Shir studied physics and biology in high school. She eventually chose to major in these two fields as an undergraduate student at the Hebrew University and was accepted to the Etgar track for excelling students in the life sciences.

"After graduating, I realized I wanted to combine physics and biology in order to understand the most mysterious part of ourselves – the brain. Physics allows us to describe and understand the world so elegantly, and I believe that when it intersects with biology, the most interesting questions of our lives can be answered."

Developing a Quantitative MRI  

Today, Shir conducts her research in Dr. Aviv Mezer’s laboratory, developing new techniques for quantitative MRI. Currently, doctors estimate, by eye (qualitatively), whether MRI scans look normal. If they suspect a problem, the patient will undergo a painful and invasive biopsy – perhaps unnecessarily.

Yet nearly every other aspect of our healthcare is quantitative. We measure the temperature of our body in Celsius or Fahrenheit and measure the different components of our blood (red cells, white cells, platelets, etc). Why should MRI scans be any different? Shir has come up with a solution. Her biophysical models combine several MRI scans, providing quantitative information about brain tissue, including lipids and proteins.

Shir’s method can provide valuable information about the molecular changes that take place during aging, and it will be helpful for both research and clinical practice. For example, understanding what differentiates a healthily aging brain from an Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s brain, or even to estimate the grade of a brain tumor without a biopsy.

"Not only is ELSC world-famous research center, but it also has a great sense of community, where everyone knows each other and are willing to help. Sometimes ELSC feels like a small village with a unique language and culture. It immediately draws you in and makes you feel like you belong."

Over the course of her studies, Shir has received numerous awards, including prizes from the University Rector and Dean for outstanding academic performance. She has co-published a number of articles and a book chapter.

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A Map of “What If….?”: Exploring the Effects of Contagion on Israeli Cities

Contagion Map
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As geographers, Dr. Yair Grinberger and Professor Daniel Felsenstein love maps. But rather than perusing old, dusty maps of countries yore, or drawing up innovative and creative maps of the world today, their maps are fascinating exercises in asking “What if…?” 

Dr. Grinberger and Prof. Felsenstein’s “map” is actually a computerized model of Israeli cities, based on real data taken from official, comprehensive databases. (Their data is on the level of buildings, not individual people). With a few clicks, they can insert an exogenous shock that affect cities – such as an earthquake, flood, or bomb – and map the outcomes. While the short-term effects and needs of such disasters are self-evident, the long-term effects are often more complex. 

Their model, named DySTUrbD (Dynamic Simulation Tool for Urban Disasters), does exactly that: it looks 3 years into the future, examining how a city bounces back, or changes, in the aftermath of such a shock. Planners, engineers, budget officers, and first responders at the municipal and national levels can use the model to understand how short- and long-term policies may eventually affect building use, commercial activity, population distribution, transportation, productivity, and labor and housing markets – among others. (DySTUrbD is not a predictive tool).

"Our map helps policy-makers develop emergency systems, examine which options are most effective, and gain a different understanding of the city. Our model can significantly impact policy."

Dr. Yair Grinberger

Pandemic Meets City 

As the Coronavirus spread, Dr. Grinberger and Prof. Felsenstein realized that DySTUrbD was not equipped to deal with this new urban crisis. With seed funding from the Ministry of Science and Technology, they began incorporating a classic epidemiological model that simulates the effects of contagion in cities – at the level of individual buildings. Known as SEIR, it tracks (S)usceptible, (E)xposed, (I)nfected, and (R)emoved (recovered or dead) populations. 

When integrated into DySTUrbD, this “pandemic module” will generate a spatial-social model of contagion, and Dr. Grinberger and Prof. Felsenstein will be able to begin introducing policies, tweaking factors, and creating various outcomes 3 years down the line.  

For example, they will be able to set their model to various pandemic scenarios and examine whether long-term impacts emerge, such as differences among populations (including welfare-related implications), which long-term impacts arise from different short-term policies, and identifying the conditions that make short- and long-term policies most effective. 

"Our model is unique in that it explicitly addresses distributional questions: we ask who wins and who gains, in terms of different socio-economic groups. We’ve incorporated normative socioeconomic assumptions, which enables us to see how particular policies might affect poor and rich populations differently."

Prof. Daniel Felsenstein

Looking Forward to a Post-Coronavirus World 

Looking forward, Dr. Grinberger and Prof. Felsenstein plan to finish incorporating the SEIR module by the end of 2020. They hope that their research will help decision-makers examine how varying degrees of intervention will play out, including determining whether to restrict the mobility of different populations and whether particular activities should be temporarily shut down. In addition, they can see how long-term policies, such as different forms of financial support to some/all of the population are likely to affect the future development of cities. 

A Case Study: A Tale of Two Earthquake-Stricken Cities 

In the pre-pandemic days, Dr. Grinberger and Prof. Felsenstein used DySTUrbD to compare how, if at all, an earthquake would differently affect Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Given the blockage of roads and widespread destruction, a few noteworthy changes took place. First, people became less mobile; in Jerusalem this led to an increase in neighborhood commerce and a decline in the centrality of the downtown area. In Tel Aviv, on the other hand, the market balanced itself out with less dramatic shifts. 

In terms of housing, processes of gentrification were evident in Jerusalem. Higher-earning households were able to relocate more easily, even if this meant driving up the prices in lower-income areas and driving out the local population. 

Understanding these domino-like shifts helps decision-makers understand the long-term effects of exogenous effects, creating better emergency plans that comprehensively address the needs of all the city’s residents.

 

Image (edited) courtesy of Yair Grinberger & Daniel Felsenstein, first published in Planning Support Systems and Smart Cities.

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Video-Diaries from the Shutdown: Social Isolation Adversely Affecting Well-Being

Girl with Phone
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Lior Zeevi is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology. She conducts her research under the supervision of Dr. Shir Atzil, whose lab studies the neuroscience of bonding. Specifically, Dr. Atzil’s lab focuses on the behavioral and neural processes involved in close relationships between partners and between parents and their children. 


Ordinarily, Dr. Atzil’s lab employs a variety of tools to study people’s relationships: behavioral analyses, hormonal analyses, neuroimaging, and more. These powerful tools can identify neuro-behavioral mechanisms underlying close relationships, while measuring and quantifying individual differences in such mechanisms. 

Lab-Like Conditions 

During the Coronavirus shutdown, a number of quantitative surveys circulated via social media, including questionnaires that gathered data on one’s physical well-being, the stress level of expectant mothers, and even smoking habits. Yet Lior felt that something was missing. This (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime experience offered the opportunity to capture and study people’s feelings and experiences, in almost lab-like conditions. 

She designed an innovative experiment and recruited 64 individuals to record themselves in a video-diary. They shared their daily experiences during the shut-down, including eating and sleeping habits and familial relationships. Lior collected video-diaries from three populations of subjects: single people, couples, and parents with children. 

Video-Diaries: A Second-by-Second Analysis 

Lior and Dr. Atzil analyzed the video-diaries, coding the second-by-second behavior in each subject. Their study is rooted in the understanding that as a social species, humans communicate their ongoing physiological and emotional demands using behavioral cues. The tools developed and applied in Dr. Atzil’s lab are enabling the researchers to gain a deeper understanding their subjects’ regulatory processes and well-being, using behavioral analyses of the video-diaries shot during the shut-down. 

While they are still analyzing their findings, the data initially seem to suggest differences between the well-being of men and women, while also showing an effect of the shutdown on subjects’ relationships. Specifically, single men and fathers showed the worst patterns of self-regulation and well-being during the shutdown. Women seemed to be relatively resilient, showing a higher degree of well-being compared to men. Moreover, as the shut-down progressed, subjects reported a drop in relationship satisfaction. Interestingly, subjects whose video-diaries showed improved patterns of self-regulation remained satisfied in their relationships. This study, which draws upon a rich behavioral dataset, indicates that improved patterns of self-regulation are associated with better relationships, especially during times of crisis.

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Taking Lethal Inflammatory Storms – By Storm

Raymond Kaempfer

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For the last three decades, Professor Raymond Kaempfer has been tackling one of medicine’s largest problems: evolving antibiotic resistance and lethality of many bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pneumoniae.  

The mechanism by which these bacteria kill is quite straightforward: they produce toxins that our immune system would ordinarily identify, target, and neutralize. Yet these particular toxins, called superantigens, evoke our immune system to vastly over-react, resulting in severe, and often lethal, inflammation known as a cytokine storm. The potential of these toxins for ruin is compounded by the fact that they can remain active for years and are heat resistant, rendering them suitable as biological weapons. Indeed, it was the Pentagon that first approached Prof. Kaempfer, asking him to develop an antidote to this feared biological threat. 

Eureka! Deciphering the Mechanism of Cytokine Storms 

While progress had been made in the late 20th century, Prof. Kaempfer was the first to fully decipher how these toxins evoke cytokine storms, which he published in 2011 – the greatest breakthrough in this field in 22 years. Based on this novel insight, he developed unique, small protein molecules capable of attenuating excessive inflammation, and not only in infected animals (his molecules combat infections by lethal mixtures of live bacteria in mice) but especially in severe sepsis patients, specifically, those suffering from necrotizing soft tissue infection, commonly called “flesh-eating bacteria.” Rather than fighting the bacteria or toxins, Prof. Kaempfer treats the body’s self-induced inflammation, in an approach known as a Host Oriented Therapeutic strategy. Because the human immune system will not change over a single lifetime, nor over the course of a few generations, pathogens cannot become resistant through mutation. This is a major advantage over antibiotics. 

A New Drug is Born? 

Prof. Kaempfer’s first-generation molecule successfully underwent all three phases of FDA clinical trials. This month, he will be submitting his FDA application for a new drug for treating flesh-eating bacteria, the first of its kind. His second-generation molecules are proving to be up to 300 times more potent in treating wound infections in animals. Indeed, per the Pentagon’s request, Prof. Kaempfer is now testing his molecules upon wounds infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 

Not only did Prof. Kaempfer succeed at deciphering a mechanism that had stumped scientists for decades, but his molecules are noteworthy for another reason: they counter the body’s excessive, harmful immune reaction while leaving the basal response intact, enabling the body to continue fighting infections on its own and developing protective immunity. 

A Call from Pandemic-Stricken New York  

In February, Prof. Kaempfer received a phone call from a large New York hospital, asking for his molecules in order to treat severely ill COVID-19 patients suffering from pulmonary cytokine storms, which closely resemble those resulting from superantigen toxins or bacteria. Yet he couldn’t just go to the post office and send a package of un-approved molecules.

With no end to the pandemic in sight, Prof. Kaempfer is hopeful that his FDA application will soon be successful. Although his application specifies the first molecule be used to combat necrotizing soft tissue infection, once approved it can be used in controlled trials on COVID-19 patients. This is especially pertinent, as many COVID-19 fatalities are due to cytokine storm. In addition, recovered patients often continue to suffer from varying degrees of multi-organ failure, also due to Coronavirus-induced inflammation.    

Throughout the pandemic, Prof. Kaempfer’s lab has been running non-stop, including during the countrywide lockdown and holidays, testing his molecules against viral and cellular components, released once the coronavirus kills infected cells, that over-activate human immune cells and evoke a cytokine storm. His entire career has prepared him for this moment: his groundbreaking research has the potential to save millions of lives worldwide, and he cannot afford to take a single day – or minute – off.

"My lab has been very lucky – if you define luck as the result of decades of hard work. One of my passions is ’survival science’ – applying my scientific knowledge, encompassing chemistry and microbiology, to creating a better world."

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Two Birds with One Stone: Combatting Smoking and the Coronavirus

Image of Woman Smoking
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Dr. Yael Bar-Zeev is on a mission: to eliminate tobacco and smoking from Israel. As a public health physician, behavioral scientist, epidemiologist, and tobacco treatment specialist, Yael is well-equipped to tackle smoking.

She is a faculty member at the Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine, helped found and currently chairs the Israeli Medical Association for Smoking Cessation and Prevention, and is a regular participant in Knesset meetings, Ministry of Health Committees, and the media. 

Smoking in the Age of a Global Pandemic 

As the Coronavirus introduced new buzzwords such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘flattening the curve,’ Dr. Bar-Zeev’s mind was somewhere else entirely: how would the pandemic, and the looming shutdown, affect Israelis’ smoking habits? 

She identified two contradictory forces: On one hand, stress levels were skyrocketing, possibly leading to increased smoking rates. On the other hand, widespread unemployment and financial woes, coupled with a heightened awareness of pulmonary vulnerability, might lead to a reduction in smoking. An additional concern was exposure to secondhand smoke, which might become more prevalent during a shutdown or quarantine.

"Smoking kills 8,000 Israelis each year and is damaging our ability to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic. The Ministry of Health and health-care providers must not neglect the fight against smoking, which continues to be the leading risk factor for mortality and morbidity in Israel."

An Exploratory Survey 

Dr. Bar-Zeev and Prof. Yehuda Neumark designed a survey targeting smokers and ex-smokers. It was disseminated through social media, reaching 660 participants, and revealed interesting data: 

First, 45% of respondents reported an increase in their motivation to quit. Yet only 7% of respondents actually stopped smoking and another 16% were unsuccessful in their attempts. Taken together, these 24% are an improvement; during ordinary times, this number hovers around 20%. Of those who attempted to quit, nearly 16% used some form of behavioral and/or medical support.  

On the flip side, 44% of respondents reported upping their intake by an average of 3 cigarettes per day. While they may have been motivated to quit, they felt incapable of doing so. 

In terms of secondhand smoke, over 80% of respondents noted no change in their home smoking rules. This may be good news, as nearly 88% already restricted smoking in their homes, including nearly 70% who limited smoking to the balcony or outdoors. At the same time, 6.6% (equaling roughly 80,000 smokers) reported that their home smoking rules worsened during the shutdown, exposing their loved ones to more secondhand smoke. 

A Missed Opportunity? 

Dr. Bar-Zeev’s data, along with similar surveys conducted worldwide, indicate that the pandemic might be an ideal time to reach out to smokers and actively offer guidance and support for quitting or reducing one’s cigarette intake.

"The pandemic has presented a golden opportunity to leverage smokers’ heightened motivation to quit and provide them with free, effective support, all while taking specific, immediate steps that could aid also in the management of the Coronavirus pandemic."

Yet despite the immense potential, reality was sobering. During the period of severe restrictions in Israel, group counseling workshops already in progress transitioned to one-on-one telephone consultations, and all scheduled cessation workshops were cancelled. The two health-care providers that routinely provide quit-line phone services require that patients must first obtain a referral from their primary care physician – posing an additional logistical hurdle. Only now, over six months into the Coronavirus pandemic, these providers have begun offering scant online group workshops. 

In January, the Israeli Ministry of Health opened a national quit-line – with little fanfare and even less advertising. As a result, when the pandemic struck, very few Israelis, including medical practitioners, were aware of the quit-line’s existence.  

In addition, it took the Ministry of Health until June to create two Coronavirus-themed anti-smoking ads, which are published on alternate months. These ads were the first to feature the national quit-line number. 

Don't Double Your Risk

The two Ministry of Health Coronavirus-themed anti-smoking advertisements. The first ad (right) came out in June 2020.

Translating Findings to Policy Recommendations  

Dr. Ben-Zeev has plenty of ideas how to leverage the Coronavirus crisis to help combat smoking. These range from requiring the health-care providers to actively reach out to smokers to training cessation counselors to help smokers reduce or maintain their intake, to prevent increases. In addition, she was a signatory on a policy paper issued by a variety of medical, health, and anti-smoking organizations, submitted to the Ministry of Health this May. 

Among their recommendations:

  1. Gather accurate smoking data and history of all Coronavirus patients.
  2. Run public awareness campaigns on ways to quit and reducing exposure to secondhand smoke, including adding a specific insert and the national quit-line number on all tobacco products packaging.
  3. Create a national, proactive plan to support people who wish to quit, including staffing the phone lines, planning workshops in accordance to the Ministry’s Coronavirus guidelines, and foster interorganizational cooperation.
  4. Limit smoking in public and include anti-smoking policies within the Ministry’s guidelines; specifically, banning outdoor smoking in public places such as restaurants and coffee-shops, so people do not have to choose between reducing their exposure to the Coronavirus and exposure to secondhand smoke.
  5. Continue expanding the ban on advertising tobacco products to include the print media.
  6. Continue implementing the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which Israel has ratified.
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An Innovative Coating for Creating Anti-Viral Surfaces

Meital Reches
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Prof. Meital Reches’s research groups is focused on saving lives: 6,000 lives in Israel, 100,000 lives in the United States – and many, many more worldwide. Infectious “superbugs” kill this many hospitalized patients a year, a number that dwarfs the Coronavirus death toll. 

Leading her team within the Institute of Chemistry, Prof. Reches has developed a unique coating that can be sprayed onto glass, metal, and plastic surfaces, rendering them resistant to fungus, yeast, and bacteria. The patented spray comprises three amino acids: One of DOPA, which is an extremely strong adhesive that naturally occurs in many forms, including enabling mussels “glue” themselves to any surface; and two of phenylalanine, which is one of the two amino acids that make up aspartame. 

DOPA enables Prof. Reches’s spray to stick, while the two phenylalanine amino acids self-assemble on the surface. The phenylalanine is modified with fluorine atoms, resulting in a non-stick surface that resembles Teflon©. Once applied, fungus, yeast, or bacteria are unable to stick or grow on treated surfaces. 

What About Viruses? 

Until now, Prof. Reches had primarily focused on bacteria, since their interactions and combinations may lead to their development of antibiotic resistance – turning them into “superbugs.” 

Then came the Coronavirus. Studies have shown that SARS-CoV-2 can remain on metal and glass for up to 5 days, plastic and stainless steel for 2-3 days, and cardboard for one day. Hence an anti-viral coating would serve as a barrier to transmission.  

Prof. Reches is currently testing her coating in the lab, using a surrogate for the Coronavirus. Given the similarities between bacteria and virus surfaces (both contain coat proteins) there is reason to hope that her spray will be effective against the Coronavirus as well. If successful, Prof. Reches hopes to market it and gain FDA approval per intended use.

"This innovative spray will be capable of preventing various infections, proving especially valuable as we cope with the current global pandemic."

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Understanding How Human Cells Work – By Studying Animal Evolution

Mice Image
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What can we learn by comparing our genes to those of a giant squid, a frog, or a blind mole? Turns out, a lot. Especially if you throw in 1,600 other species whose full genomes have been decoded in recent years. This is the specialty of Dr. Yuval Tabach at the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Medicine – taking apart the genes of thousands of animals, comparing them to one another, and extracting important conclusions about what human genes do, how they influence cancer and other diseases, and how they can be targeted by drugs.

Thanks to exponential developments in genomics, Dr. Tabach now has access to the genomes of 1,600+ species. This is Big Data: the ability to compare millions of genes, representing hundreds of millions of years of evolution. (For comparison, Dr. Tabach’s first paper, published in 2013, was based on 87 species, and in 2019 he had access to 600 species). 

Mining such vast amounts of data to benefit humans is far from simple. Dr. Tabach’s lab develops artificial intelligence algorithms that can search and compare these genomes for evolutionary patterns – identifying distinct networks of genes that execute a particular function. 

Co-Evolving Genes: An Indicator of Mutual Reliance (and Significance) 

How is this done? A guiding principle is that if two genes co-evolve closely together across many species, they are likely to play a similar role and even work together. Co-evolution means that these genes are always found together within a given species, and both absent in other species. In other words, if two genes have evolved together and changed at a similar rate across species, they may rely on each other to execute their tasks.

For example, Dr. Tabach’s algorithms can identify the genes that enable most animals (but not humans) to biosynthesize vitamin C or the genes involved in eyesight. His computational tools can highlight entire gene networks, including genes that might not have been thought to play a role in a given function.

Using his powerful methods, Dr. Tabach recently discovered new functions of genes involved in human breast cancer. By tracking the co-evolution of genes associated with DNA repair (genes that maintain the integrity of our genome) he discovered new genes involved in this important function. When these “repair” genes mutate in cancer, this contributes to the disease. 

Nature’s Superpowers 

Another passion of Dr. Tabach’s is studying nature’s “superpowers”: outliers in the animal kingdom. In particular, he is interested in animals that do not develop cancer and whose aging is slow – including elephants, whales, and naked mole rats. Often these are larger animals, with significantly more cells than humans, and thus have a higher potential for incurring mutations. And yet, these animals have substantially less cancer than other creatures, including humans.

"My team has identified 101 such genes that may play a role in these species’ resistance to cancer. Laboratory tests have shown that one of these genes was capable of reducing cancer potential by 10-20% in human cells, through improving the mechanism of repairing damaged DNA. It is easy to imagine the exciting, vast potential of the other 100 genes, which can be translated into dozens of new anti-cancer mechanisms."

Will We Grow Tusks?

If we begin replacing our genes with elephant DNA, will we become elephants? No. The genetic signatures and genes identified by Dr. Tabach are associated with cancer resistance and can increase life expectancy across species. Having survived millions of years of evolution, these universal, anti-cancer mechanisms may play an extremely valuable role without being highly specific to one organism or another. 

What’s Next?

Computational tools are predictive: they can scan and process large amounts of data and identify patterns. However, the findings and predictions must be tested through laboratory work – first with human cells and tissues, then with live animals. One of Dr. Tabach’s goals is to genetically engineer a cancer-resistant and potentially long-lived mouse. Another direction he is actively pursuing is the development of medications that mimic or replace genes. These may serve as preventative or curative measures.

Dr. Tabach’s work is both broad and specific – and offers hope of a healthier future for people worldwide.

"It is really exciting for us to look back through hundreds of millions of years of genetic evolution, and extract information that can impact human health in the present."

To read about Dr. Tabach’s Coronavirus research, click here.

Photo credit: "Mouse ENCODE" by Darryl Leja, NHGRI. Accessed on Flickr, used under a CC BY 2.0 license. The image has been cropped

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Applying Computational Tools to Curing Cancer

Yotam Drier
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Dr. Yotam Drier, from the Lautenberg Center for Immunology and Cancer Research at the Hebrew University, has set out to cure cancer. Using sophisticated computational methods, he is able to decipher the complex mechanisms that regulate the activity of thousands of genes and show how these mechanisms go awry in cancer. 

Cancer: The Evasive Killer  

Cancer is the number one killer in western society, and has proven a formidable disease to combat. One reason is that cancer cells are constantly changing (mutating) while also multiplying, acquiring new abilities and evading therapies. How do cancer cells do this? The key lies in mis-regulation of their genes.  

Cancer occurs when one of the trillions of cells in our body begins multiplying uncontrollably, giving rise to a tumor mass. This may be caused by gene overactivity or under-activity. For example, a gene might receive mis-repeated instructions to multiply (thus growing out of control), or a gene meant to block cell growth may become inactive. As cancer progresses, several such key genes tend to mutate, resulting in permanent changes to their activity.

Yet perfectly healthy genes can still drive cancer. How? The answer lies in the regulatory DNA, the “other” 97% of our DNA that does not contain genes. These regulatory elements dictate which genes are active within each cell, but it is not very straightforward. Their complex interactions, with each other and with multitudes of genes, make it challenging to uncover how they work.   

At the Cutting-Edge of Cancer Research  

Using advanced tools for genetic analysis and novel computational algorithms, Dr. Drier’s work has revealed several key ways in which gene regulatory elements can drive cancer:

Epigenetics: Chemical “markings” upon the regulatory DNA affect how the genes are regulated. Numerous simultaneous epigenetic changes can drastically change gene activity and drive cancer.  

3D genetic “tangles”: Each cell contains a sort of “tangled” DNA pom-pom, in which genes and their regulatory elements are in close proximity and interact. This structure is often changed in cancer cells. Without proper interactions, genes are not properly activated, driving cancer. 

Dr. Drier has successfully associated between particular changes to the regulatory DNA and specific types of cancer, including pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, tumors of the salivary gland, and others.

"I’m aiming to systematically uncover the code of regulatory DNA and its disruption in cancer. This will allow us to both better understand how basic processes are regulated by, and encoded in, the DNA, as well as to uncover what drives various tumors we do not yet understand. We can suggest better strategies to manage these diseases and new drugs for targeting them."

At the Frontier of Computational Medicine

Dr. Drier’s lab team applies cutting-edge experimental techniques to studying and characterizing tumors in high throughput. In other words, rather than studying a specific gene or type of cancer, he studies a system: the entire cancer genome. Dr. Drier’s lab generates and analyzes a significant amount of data, including the tumor’s genetics, epigenetics, structure, gene expression, and more. 

By applying powerful algorithms, Dr. Drier integrates his findings with other databases and develops computational models capable of predicting cancer-driving events, focusing on changes to regulatory DNA elements. Such events may include changes and differences among healthy and cancerous cells and what causes the cancer to appear, keep growing, and metastasize. In other words, Dr. Drier is capable of predicting the function of observed changes to regulatory DNA and their role in driving cancer. 

Dr. Drier is currently taking a very broad approach; after identifying specific regulatory DNA alterations responsible for causing a particular form of cancer, his team will experimentally check whether indeed introducing these changes to cells causes the predicted outcome in order to establish cause and effect between regulatory DNA changes and cancer (rather than mere correlations).  

Dr. Drier’s work is at the forefront of computational medicine, both at the Hebrew University and globally. His work has greatly contributed to our understanding of how disruptions to regulatory DNA can lead to cancer, and his breakthroughs are illuminating new ways to treat cancer patients.

"I am very grateful for the opportunity to work in the diverse and stimulating environment that the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Medicine provides, where collaborations naturally form between physicians, experimental biologists, and computational biologists, an intersection that provides for very rewarding science."

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Saving Animals & Educating People: Yarah Kablan, Veterinary Student

Yarah Kablan
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Yarah Yosef Kablan grew up in the picturesque Druze village of Beit Jann, located within the Meron nature reserve in northern Israel. Her father would take her out hiking, teaching her from an early age to respect and care for nature. But very little emphasis was placed on the proper and humane treatment of animals, and Yarah was always distressed to see how her community treated pets, especially dogs – who were seen primarily as watchdogs.    


Yarah did whatever she could: learning about different animals, caring for them, and saving stray cats and dogs. Beit Jann didn’t have a single animal clinic, so Yarah decided to become a veterinarian.  

Yarah’s parents are both educated: her father was the village’s first lawyer and her mother is a computer programmer. They encouraged their children to select professions based on their interests, and work hard to succeed. As a result, Yarah’s siblings hold diverse professions, including structural engineering, social work, teacher, industrial engineer, fitness instructor, and programmer. 

When it came time to choose, Yarah decided to study animal science at a college in northern Israel. She also worked at an equine therapy ranch and a pet supply store, and she volunteered at animal sanctuaries and a non-profit dog adoption agency. 

After graduating, Yarah volunteered at a youth center in her village. She held a series of sessions for high school students, teaching them what to do and who to contact if they encounter an injured animal, her decision to become vegan, and brought in a dog trainer who taught the teens how to properly care for, feed, and treat dogs. To this day, the participants are in touch with Yarah, asking her advice. They have saved 3 dogs, and a few have become vegans or vegetarians. Even more importantly, their attitudes have changed, and they behave more kindly towards animals. 

 

 

Yarah also joined a local animal rights group that maintains contact over Whatsapp. This diverse group, which includes Druze, Muslims, Christians, and Jews – of all ages – notify each other and lend a helping hand to save animals. She was even featured in a documentary that was screened at the DocAviv Galilee festival, spotlighting her efforts to save a dog who’d been run over and suffered from a broken shoulder. She has also saved hedgehogs, rabbits, and birds, transferring them to professional hands.

 

 

Another passion project of Yarah’s is transferring carcasses to research facilities. This includes a marten whose body was fully intact (a rare specimen) that she kept in her freezer, much to her mother’s chagrin, until researchers travelled to Beit Jann to pick it up.  

Last year, Yarah enrolled in the Hebrew University’s Koret School of Veterinary Medicine and begin working towards her DVM degree (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine).

"I am finally working towards realizing my dream. I never considered any other profession – I always knew I’d become a veterinarian."

She is looking forward to working on her capstone project, researching Leishmaniosis (leishmaniasis) in cats under the supervision of Prof. Gad Baneth, the Rybak-Pearson Chair in Veterinary Medicine. She’s also excited to begin the clinical years, when she’ll finally begin gaining hands-on experience saving animals.

Yarah is scheduled to graduate in three years. She plans to complete her internship at the Hebrew University’s Veterinary Hospital, gaining professional confidence and clinical experience before entering the field. Next, she hopes to join an existing clinic to gain even more experience. When she feels ready, she will return to Beit Jann and open her clinic.

 

"I’m here to help animals and change people’s attitudes towards them. I dream of opening an animal shelter and helping as many animals as I can."

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Shedding Light (& Diagnosing) the Coronavirus

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Dr. Eitan Lerner is a molecular biophysicist at the Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences. In biology, the structure of most proteins is related to their function. However, there is a group of proteins, intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs), that are partially or sometimes even completely disordered or unstructured. These proteins can fold, bind, and function in many ways. In ordinary times, Dr. Lerner is studying how one such IDP, α-Synuclein, can on one hand support and facilitate proper dopamine release in our brains, but, on the other hand, can cause neurotoxicity associated with Parkinson's disease. 

However, these are certainly not ordinary times. Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Lerner realized he had an opportunity to research something he had always been curious about: rapid counting of particles sized 50-500 nanometers, using light – a grey zone in biology, as most light-based observations focus either on much smaller biomolecular systems or much larger organisms. (The Coronavirus measures 100-120 nanometers in diameter). 

A Different Method, Quicker Results 

Dr. Lerner wondered if single-particle spectroscopy might be applied to developing a quicker Coronavirus diagnostic test. The standard PCR test takes 1-2 days to return results, leaving patients in limbo. Using single-particle spectroscopy, Dr. Lerner believed it would be possible to deliver equally accurate results more quickly. (See box for more info).

"We need an additional testing method, one that will complement the PCR-based testing, but that will provide faster results. Ideally, such a test would also be cheaper, saving the cost of reagents and other lab supplies."

Dr. Lerner got to work developing a microscopy-based apparatus for the counting of virus particles with high sensitivity and, most importantly, rapidly. He developed a method for detecting the presence of the virus based on two signatures: its size, determined by how many fluorescent molecules are displaced by the virus, and its specific interaction with proteins and antibodies – to confirm that the pathogen is, in fact, SARS-CoV-2 (and not a different particle of similar size). By confirming that the volume of displaced fluorescent liquid correlates closely with the observed antibodies – a viral detection event is recorded. The only thing that’s left is to count enough such events in a short period of time. The entire process can be completed in 10 minutes. 

Looking forward, Dr. Lerner will begin testing the system with similar, safer viruses and antibodies supplied by various Hebrew University researchers, and eventually transfer his research to an existing BSL-2 lab. 

Born Out of a Partnership 

Dr. Lerner’s partner in this endeavor is Prof. Dr. Thorben Cordes at Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich, who is responsible for the engineering aspects of the project. They already have the first prototype – a 3D-printed apparatus that uses readily available supplies. This would reduce costs, increase accessibility, and shorten wait-time – without compromising accuracy. 

"We’ve refused to apply for grants requiring us to give up our intellectual property. If this method works, it must be immediately commercialized – for the benefit of humankind."

All diagnostic tests must balance specificity with sensitivity, while also providing results in a timely manner. Specificity refers to properly detecting the presence (or absence) of the pathogen, while sensitivity measures how much of the pathogen is needed to obtain a meaningful result.

The Coronavirus is initially heavily present in saliva, as well as in other bodily fluids (to different degrees); as time passes and symptoms progress, the virus moves into host cells in the body – where it replicates and causes patients to transfer the virus to their surroundings. (Put on that mask!). A patient who is swabbed on the first or second day of their symptoms will have more virus in their saliva than a patient swabbed on the sixth or seventh day. Eventually, after approximately 14 days, so little virus will be found in these bodily fluids, that it may become harder to detect, forcing clinicians to rely on other methods (e.g. blood tests).

Dr. Lerner has developed the technology that facilitates a test that is as specific and sensitive as the PCR test, but much quicker. It will complement the PCR test and perhaps come to serve as a rapid pre-test to help diagnostic teams in the field make better and quicker decisions, while helping patients get more accurate results - in less time.

 

This research was supported by the ISRAEL SCIENCE FOUNDATION (grant No. 3565/20) within the KillCorona – Curbing Coronavirus Research Program

 

Photo credit: "Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2" by NIH. Accessed on Flickr, used under a CC BY 2.0 license. The image has been cropped.

 

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Can Our Genes Influence or Predict the Severity of Illness?

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As Coronavirus infection rates rose worldwide, it has become clear that the disease’s symptoms and their severity greatly differ between people. As the pandemic continues to spread, it is imperative to identify which individuals, whether already affected or not, are at the greatest risk of becoming severely ill. Furthermore, accurate risk-prediction models will help public health officials determine how to best allocate medical resources. The key to such knowledge may lay in our genes, as they dictate how our bodies (organs, immune system) respond to infection. 

Hebrew University scientists are tacking this important question, taking a two-fold approach. First, COVID-19 patients are treated by Hebrew University-Hadassah clinicians, Prof. Dana Wolf and Prof. Arie Ben-Yehuda. Next, Dr. Yotam Drier, Dr. Shai Carmi, and Prof. Assaf Hellman are applying their expertise in genetic, computational, and statistical methods to patient samples, conducting large-scale genetic data analysis. By applying algorithms that cross-reference the patients’ genetic and clinical information, the researchers may be able to identify gene patterns are associated with severity of illness – explaining why some patients become severely ill, while others do not.

"As a computational biologist, I use data on genetic differences between individuals, along with statistical methods and algorithms, to find which genetic variants influence traits and diseases. I also develop genetic screens and models for disease risk prediction. I will apply these skills to tackling one of the biggest questions of the coronavirus pandemic – why are some people severely ill while others are asymptomatic? And how can we predict which individuals are at risk, in order to better protect them?"

- Dr. Shai Carmi

This study may have an immense impact on combatting COVID-19 by identifying individuals who are at high risk for disease or may respond better to a particular treatment. In the future, simple genetic tests may help predict and determine how to best treat different individuals.

Photo credit: "DNA Double Helix with Data" by Jonathan Bailey, NHGRI. Accessed on Flickr, used under a CC BY 2.0 license. The Image has been cropped.

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Entering Our Bodies: ACE2 Receptors as Gateway Cells

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The coronavirus is currently understood to enter the human body by interacting with a receptor named ACE2. This receptor is a protein that is displayed on the surface of certain cells in the lungs, nose, and oral cavity, among others. In a sense, the receptor and virus are like a keyhole and key; they must perfectly fit for the virus to enter and infect a person. 

However, which cell types present ACE2 on their surface, and what determines their presence, is unknown. Prevent ACE2 from being displayed, or blocking its interaction with the virus, would likely reduce infection rates and stymie the virus’s ability to infect additional cells in the body. Furthermore, it is possible that the Coronavirus can enter the human body via additional gateway receptors, which could also potentially be targeted for therapy. Such other players are yet to be discovered. 

It is clear that some recovered COVID-19 patients subsequently suffer from a range of illnesses, for example inflammation of the circulatory system in different organs. It is unclear whether the cells of these organs display gateway cells that permit infection by the virus.

Studying Healthy Cell Samples to Learn About Infection 

Hebrew University scientists Dr. Oren Parnas and Dr. Yotam Drier, in collaboration with Hadassah lung surgeon Dr. Ori Wald, hope to provide answers to these questions. To this end, they are collecting cells from the lungs and other organs of non-COVID-19 patients. They are characterizing the exact gene activity profile of each cell and identifying which cell types display active ACE2 receptors. To date, they have profiled thousands of cells and measured the expression of hundreds of thousands of genes. Powerful computational tools are the only possible way to analyze such a vast dataset.

At the same time, the researchers are comparing their findings to existing cell databases to identify cell types with a proclivity towards SARS-Cov-2 infection. Their working hypothesis is that by identifying the type of cell, they will glean clues about the mechanism underlying COVID-19 symptoms. For example, inflammation of the circulatory system could be caused by direct infection of blood vessel cells.

"It may become possible to understand and treat the disease’s symptoms by understanding how it spreads in the human body – on a cellular level. This type of detective work can really allow us to trace the virus’s advancement within the body."

          Dr. Oren Parnas

Looking Ahead: Uncovering a Gene Regulatory Network through Computer Analysis

Within our bodies, molecular networks regulate our genes, affecting when each gene is turned on and off. To fully understand how these networks are organized and how they work, Dr. Parnas and Dr. Drier will disrupt each of the known human genes in cells, one gene at a time, and then measure whether these perturbations change the cell’s ability to become infected with SARS-CoV-2. 

It is possible that an eventual drug will target the regulatory mechanisms that enable infection, rather than combatting the virus at the site of infection. By creating a computational network of the genes’ regulatory mechanisms, scientists will be able to better understand – and disrupt – the chain of events that makes cells susceptible to infection. 

The next step will be to translate these computational findings into lab experiments, in order to verify findings and determine the best course of treatment for patients.

"The impact of this groundbreaking work isn't limited to the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic but will open the door to an entirely new understanding of how molecular networks affect disease and treatment - enabling us to treat numerous diseases more effectively."

          Dr. Yotam Drier

Photo credit: "Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2" by NIAID. Accessed on Flickr, used under a CC BY 2.0 license. The image has been cropped.

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News

Patricia Alvarado Núñez

Breakthrough in Antibiotic Safety

23 November, 2022

Bionic Technology Blends Sensors and Human Tissue to Create Smart “Kidney-Chip”

Antibiotic resistance is a growing public health concern with global implications. Antibiotic-resistant infection affects over 2.8 million individuals each year in the United States alone, resulting in more than 35,000 annual deaths. New resistance mechanisms constantly emerge and spread globally, threatening our ability to treat common infectious diseases, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and sepsis.

cooking by fire

International Team of Leading Israeli Universities Finds Oldest Evidence of the Controlled Use of Fire to Cook Food

15 November, 2022

The remains of a huge carp fish (2 meters/6.5 feet length), analyzed by the Hebrew University, Bar-Ilan University Tel Aviv University, in collaboration with Oranim Academic College, the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research institution, the Natural History Museum in London, and the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, mark the earliest signs of cooking by prehistoric human to 780,000 years ago, predating the available data by some 600,000 years.

sperm

Follow-Up Study Shows Significant Decline in Sperm Counts Globally, Including Latin America, Asia, and Africa

15 November, 2022

An international team led by Professor Hagai Levine of Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Hadassah Braun School of Public Health, with Prof. Shanna Swan at the Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai, New York, along with researchers in Denmark, Brazil, Spain, Israel and the USA, published the first meta-analysis to demonstrate declining sperm counts among men from South and Central America, Asia and Africa.

Lachish Comb

Hebrew U. Unearths Ivory Comb from 1700 BCE Inscribed with Plea to Eradicate Lice

10 November, 2022

"May this [ivory] tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard”

The alphabet was invented around 1800 BCE and was used by the Canaanites and later by most other languages in the world.  Until recently, no meaningful Canaanite inscriptions had been discovered in the Land of Israel, save only two or three words here and there. Now an amazing discovery presents an entire sentence in Canaanite, dating to about 1700 BCE. It is engraved on a small ivory comb and includes a spell against lice.

Hebrew University

Hebrew University and Meta AI Launch Joint AI PhD Program to Drive Cutting-Edge Research

26 October, 2022

This first of its kind partnership between Meta and an Israeli university marks a significant step to bring industry-leading Artificial Intelligence research from Hebrew University’s Rachel and Selim Benin School of Computer Science and Engineering to the AI marketplace. 

Today, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU)’s School of Engineering and Computer Science and Yissum, HU’s technology transfer company announced a new research partnership with Meta AI.

IBM Partners

Hebrew University and the Technion Partner with IBM to Advance Artificial Intelligence

8 September, 2022

Following Collaborations with MIT, Stanford, and Other Leading Universities round the Globe, IBM Research to Invest Millions in Research at These Two Leading Israeli Universities

The Technion and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have signed a partnership agreement with IBM Research to advance artificial intelligence capabilities and applications in Israel. The collaboration was announced this week at a conference held by IBM in Tel Aviv to mark 50 years since the establishment of the IBM Research Lab in Israel.

The Light Trap

TU Vienna and Hebrew University Develop "Light Trap"— Beam of Light Prevents Itself from Escaping, Allowing Light to be Absorbed Perfectly

29 August, 2022

Whether in photosynthesis or in a photovoltaic system: If you want to use light efficiently, you have to absorb it as completely as possible. However, this is difficult if the absorption is to take place in a thin layer of material that normally lets a large part of the light pass through.

Biosensor System

Israel’s Hebrew University & Volcani Institute Team Up to Prevent Looming Global Food Crisis

23 August, 2022

Despite advances in increased food production, half of all world’s harvested food is lost due to שבrots caused by microorganisms.  Plants emit various volatile organic compounds into their surrounding environment, which can be monitored for early detection of plant disease and prevent food loss.

Desert Climate

Desert Regions May Be Best Predictors of Climate Change in Wetter Areas

21 August, 2022

When it comes to the world’s climate, in the past decade, planet Earth keeps sending us its summer siren’s call. According to NASA, nineteen of the hottest years have occurred since 2000, with 2016 and 2020 tied for the hottest on record. This summer is already making worldwide headlines, with England scorching beyond 40 degrees Celsius.

Mount Scopus Aerial

Hebrew University Ranks 77th Worldwide and #1 in Israel

15 August, 2022

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) climbed 13 places to rank 77th among the world’s top universities and number one in Israel, according to the 2022 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), published today (Monday).  Topping the list were Harvard, followed by Stanford, MIT, Cambridge, and UCLA Berkeley.  Two other Israeli universities placed in the top 100, as well—the Technion and Weizmann Institute both shared the 83rd spot.  This is a major achievement for Israel’s higher education at large and for Hebrew U., specifically.

MRI Scan

Diagnosis of Early Stage Parkinson's Now Possible with New Method Developed at Hebrew U

12 July, 2022

Parkinson's is a progressive and debilitating disease of the brain that eventually compromises patients' ability to walk and even to talk. Its diagnosis is complex, and in the early stages – impossible.

The usual method of visualizing brain structure utilizes a technique most of us are familiar with, called MRI. However, it is not sensitive enough to reveal the biological changes that take place in the brain of Parkinson patients, and at present is primarily only used to eliminate other possible diagnoses. 

Zelenskky Address

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Addresses Hebrew University Community

23 June, 2022

On Eve of 4 Month Anniversary of Russian Invasion, Zelenskyy Asks the World, “How Can You Not Help the Victims of Such Aggression?”

Today, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) in a live speech from Kiev. The speech was broadcast on the university’s social media channels and followed by Q&A with students and staff.

Winner Shot

Kinoko Tech Wins Hebrew University’s 2022 Asper Prize for Emerging Startups

15 June, 2022

Kinoko Tech, founded by scientists Drs. Dalia Feldman, Jasmin Ravid and Hadar Shohat, is the 2022 winner of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU)’s Asper Prize for Emerging Startups.  The 100,000 NIS cash prize was awarded by ASPER-HUJI Innovate - The Innovation Center of the Hebrew University, a Center created to nurture an entrepreneurial spirit amongst students, researchers, and alumni at Hebrew University.

Tarantino

Trailblazing Filmmaker Tarantino Joins 19 Distinguished Leaders from Diverse Fields to Receive Honorary Degree from Hebrew University

13 June, 2022

Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino received an honorary degree--“Doctor Philosophiae Honoris Causa”--from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) at a festive ceremony during the 85th Board of Governors (BOG) meeting.

Winners

The 2022 Hebrew University Dan Maydan Prize for Nanoscience Goes to MIT Prof. Pablo Jarillo-Herrero

25 May, 2022

MIT physics Professor Pablo Jarillo-Herrero has won the 2022 Dan Maydan Prize for Nanoscience Research for his pioneering work on two-dimensional nanomaterials.  The Dan Maydan Prize was established by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) in 2018, with the generous contribution of Dr. Maydan, who played a central role in establishing the Israeli National Nanotechnology Initiative (INNI).  The INNI helped position Israel as a leader in nanotech and led to the opening of 10 nanotech centers in the country, including HU’s Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology.

Tami Sheafer

Hebrew University Appoints New Rector—Professor Tamir Sheafer

23 May, 2022

Sheafer Replaces Prof. Barak Medina, HU Rector Since 2017

Professor Tamir Sheafer was chosen by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU)’s Senate as the university’s new rector.  For the last six years, Sheafer has served as Dean of HU’s Faculty of Social Sciences.  His field of expertise is digital and comparative communications.  Over the past two decades, Sheafer has led several international research groups to study the impact of political systems and the strength of a democracy on that country’s political processes and communications.

Masada Image

Where were Herod the Great's Royal Alabaster Bathtubs Quarried?

17 May, 2022

From the Middle Bronze Age, Egypt played a crucial role in the appearance of calcite-alabaster artifacts in Israel, and the development of the local gypsum-alabaster industry. The absence of ancient calcite-alabaster quarries in the Southern Levant (modern day Israel and Palestine) led to the assumption that all calcite-alabaster vessels found in the Levant originated from Egypt, while poorer quality vessels made of gypsum were local products.

Yaniv Elkouby

Hebrew U. Study of Zebrafish Ovaries Discovers New Structure Vital for Normal Egg Development

12 May, 2022

It is humbling to realize that we human share about 70% of our genes with zebrafish. There are also a whole host of other similarities that make these small transparent fish an ideal animal model for the study of many human diseases and biological processes.  In the lab of Dr. Yaniv Elkouby at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU)’s Faculty of Medicine, the focus is on the development of the immature egg cells (oocytes) of zebrafish.

Ecuador President & Asher Cohen

Ecuadoran President Guillermo Lasso visits Hebrew University

12 May, 2022

Ecuadoran President Guillermo Lasso became the 1st sitting president of his country to visit Israel.  He arrived with a 100-member delegation that will remain in country for two weeks to visit Israeli universities and innovative projects.

Today at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Lasso and his wife First Lady Maria de Lourdes Alcivar, inaugurated Ecuador’s Office for Technology and Innovation and held a business conference called “Ecuador Open for Business” to develop investments and public-private partnerships with key players in Israel’s ecosystem. 

Anastasiia Zinevych

Following Hebrew University's Emergency Aid for Ukrainian Academic Staff & Students: 10 Refugees Arrive on Campus

13 April, 2022

Considering the threat on the lives of academics and university students in Ukraine, and in a show of solidarity, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) has offered academic hosting for Ukrainian academic staff and students.  To date, 18 such refugees have been accepted to continue their studies at the University and 10 have already arrived at our Jerusalem and Rehovot campuses. 

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