Claiming a major breakthrough in coronavirus research, on Tuesday researchers in Israel confirmed that they have made significant progress in isolating an antibody that could be used to treat those sickened by coronavirus. Although the antibody has not been tested on animals or humans, it appears to meet three key clinical components necessary for a viable treatment, giving hope that the development of a treatment could be shortened substantially.
The research, announced by the Israel Institute of Biological Research, purports to meet three key parameters. First, the antibody is monoclonal, which means it specifically does not have harmful proteins that would otherwise make the antibody difficult to use. Second, the antibody is able to neutralize the coronavirus. Third, given the various mutations of the virus worldwide, the Israeli antibody was specifically tested against the aggressive strain of the coronavirus. While there have been several breakthroughs in antibody research over the past few months (including a related finding by Dutch researchers at Utrecht University and Erasmus University in March), Israeli researchers claimed in a statement that “as far as we know, according to comprehensive scientific publications from around the world, the Biological Research Institute is the first in the world to achieve this breakthrough in these three parameters at the same time.”
While the timeline for further development wasn’t confirmed, the next steps in the antibody research will be to move from Petri dish testing to animals and eventually humans, all which take meaningful amounts of time. Nonetheless, in a global race to find medical interventions for the deadly coronavirus, the Israeli announcement fuels optimism that progress can be made at against the novel virus at a rapid pace. The Biological Research Institute remained cautious of the timeline, however, acknowledging in its statement: “This is an important milestone, but afterwards comes complicated tests and a process of getting regulatory approval. Per an assessment by the institute’s scientists, this technological breakthrough is poised to shorten the process, which will go on for several months.”
In many ways, it’s not surprising that Israel is well-poised to be a leader in coronavirus related research, a global effort that now has over 100 research groups around the world focused on finding antibodies and a vaccine. Israel has multiple major research institutes now focused on pursuing coronavirus breakthroughs. In addition to the Institute of Biological Research, the Migal Galilee Research Institute in northern Israel, the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Ben Gurion University in the Negev, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa are all working on various aspects of antibody, vaccine and testing research. Together they are collaborating with one another, Israeli medical centers and researchers all around the world.
But just as much as the research institutions, Israel’s coronavirus advances are also boosted by a private sector that has a large number of entrepreneurial companies focused on life sciences, contributing its reputation as start-up nation. According to a 2019 report by Israel’s Innovation Authority, the nation of almost nine million residents has over 1,600 life sciences companies, attracting over $1.5 billion of funding in 2018. Often spinning out of government funded research programs and thriving in a deeply entrepreneurial ecosystem, Israeli companies continue to make breakthroughs across the life sciences sector, from pharma to foodtech to medical cannabis. But right now, a huge focus is on coronavirus-related research projects as Israel, like much of the world, has been substantially impacted by the pandemic.
Like all other coronavirus research, the news of the breakthrough from Israel should be met with reservation until more testing can be done. But in a time when any news of scientific progress is good news, a big development from this relatively small country should give us all a boost of optimism.