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Science Burns in Her Bones

Science Burns in Her Bones

May 14, 2010

Medical Research

As a kid, Smadar Cohen went to the library in Petah Tikva every day to borrow a book to read overnight. That was the rule: One book per customer. When her father noticed how she absorbed the knowledge in each book, he quietly supplied her with a second card. Two cards, two books. That was the kind of home she grew up in.

Prof. Smadar Cohen

Prof. Smadar Cohen

Today Professor Cohen is the head of Ben Gurion University’s (BGU) Department of Biotechnology Engineering. She tells ISRAEL21c that her parents used their modest means to encourage their four children to attain knowledge and culture. “I was thinking of becoming a musician,” she says, “but science really burned in my bones.”

Cohen has focused on two main, cutting-edge uses of polymers: Tissue regeneration and controlled delivery of therapeutic proteins (aka vaccines). She recently received the $100,000 Rappaport Prize for Excellence in Biomedical Research for her innovations in the application of biomaterials for regenerating tissues.

And after several years of work with her students and her colleague, Prof. Jonathan Leor, she also invented an algae-based material that prevents cardiac tissue damage following a heart attack.

Selected in 2008 by Windhover Information as one of the top 10 most promising cardiovascular projects in development, the resulting product is now in clinical trials in the US after New Jersey-based Ikaria Holdings bought the license from Jerusalem’s BioLineRx for $285 million and future royalties on the product.

A slew of groundbreaking polymer inventions

Another of her groundbreaking polymer inventions now on the market is the AlgiMatrix 3D Culture System. This animal-free ‘bio-scaffold’ is likely to revolutionize the way disease states and drug responses are predicted in such fields as toxicology, drug development, cancer and stem cell research, and tissue and organ engineering.

Last November, Cohen received the $50,000 Teva Founders Award for her research on biomaterials to regenerate bodily tissue. Although Israel’s Teva Pharmaceuticals usually awards two of these prizes annually, Cohen was the sole recipient for 2009.

Upon completing high school, army service, and a graduate biophysics degree at Tel Aviv University, Cohen opted for a post-doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Cohen had heard about the work of MIT Prof. Robert Langer, who was researching the use of polymers in drug delivery. This was exactly what she wanted to do. But lacking an engineering background, which is normally required at MIT, Cohen knew she’d have to fight hard for a spot in Langer’s lab.

She wrote him letter after letter until he contacted her TAU advisor and said he was coming to Israel and wanted to interview the persistent student.

“Later, he told me that he saw the glint in my eyes and said, ‘I want her in my lab,’ ” Cohen recalls. She went off to MIT at the end of 1987.

Creating stabilized vaccines and working with the WHO

Given a free hand by Langer, Cohen perfected a polymer delivery system for vaccines, eventually establishing a program with the World Health Organization to introduce stabilized vaccines to Africa. Needing no refrigeration, they slowly release a full dosage, eliminating follow-up shots.

In 1992, she returned to Israel to develop BGU’s biotech engineering department. Among Israeli universities, this department is unique in that its students are engineers working in biology. Most universities in Israel that offer biotech engineering tend to stress biology over engineering.

Twice the university bestowed upon Cohen its Presidents Award for Excellence in Science – first in 2006 and again this year as part of its 40th anniversary celebrations.

“I fulfilled a dream when I became a researcher in academia. I feel that every year I learn new things from my students and become younger and younger,” says Cohen, who in 2008 was ranked 12th on Lady Globes magazine’s list of the 50 most influential women in Israel. She holds 26 patents and sits on the scientific advisory boards of several biotechnology and nanotechnology companies.

Despite a total of almost a decade at MIT, Cohen says there was never any question that she would return to Israel. “When I started to dream in English, I knew it was time to go home,” she says. “A few years ago, I got an offer from a US university and also one in England, and I said ‘no.’ I really love Israel and I love living here. And I am doing really well here.”