Gene or RNA silencing is a method to eliminate the expression of a diseased gene, based on a process that was discovered in 1998. Americans Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello were awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in medicine for their discovery of "RNA interference - gene silencing by double- stranded RNA."
"The basis for this groundbreaking biological discovery is the use of small RNA molecules that are so specific, they eliminate only diseased genes," Michaeli told the CJN while in Cleveland on a visit on behalf of Bar-Ilan University. "Traditional chemotherapy kills both the healthy and diseased genes, but a biological treatment using silenced RNA molecules would not."
Scientists in Michaeli's lab are conducting research specific to pancreatic "onco" (cancer) cells using the silenced RNA technique. "The silenced RNA binds to the diseased RNA and induces its degradation," said Michaeli.
Although scientists agree this is a key breakthrough in cancer treatment, their problem is producing enough silent RNA cells, which are extremely small, labile and unstable.
"Whoever can fabricate hybrid nanoparticles - in which silenced RNA is bound to the surface of different kinds of inorganic nanosized carriers for delivery to diseased cells - will win a Nobel Prize the next year," said Michaeli. "This will be personalized medicine at its best with custom-made patient therapy."
Research is also being conducted in Michaeli's lab using silenced RNA molecules to heal infectious diseases caused by parasites, such as the "Rose of Jericho," or cutaneous leishmaniasis, which is transmitted by sandflies. This disease causes painful, slow-healing skin ulcers that leave scars, and it is a particular problem for Israeli soldiers stationed in the desert.
"Parasites are different than bacteria in that they have antibodies that are similar to human cells, making it difficult to find therapy that will harm parasites without harming the host," said Michaeli. "Our goal is to develop targeted silenced RNA molecules to treat these insidious parasites. This treatment will be particularly important when we deal with emerging diseases or future pandemics."
Working at Bar-Ilan for the past 11 years has been "a pioneering opportunity that has allowed a group of young, brilliant, ambitious scientists to realize their potential," said Michaeli. "Ten years ago our president Moshe Kaveh made a commitment to avoid a brain drain of rising Jewish scientists by creating new slots for these scientists and providing them with start-up money to establish research programs, even though it meant combining high-tech with high-cost."
Michaeli's department has 46 faculty members, 20 of whom are young Jewish scientists recruited from around the world. Michaeli and other seasoned Bar-Ilan staff can offer these promising young scientists guidance on starting a new lab, learning how to cope under intense pressure, and "working collaborately to build something new and strong together," she said.
Between 1901 and 2011, about 850 laureates have been awarded Nobel Prizes. Of these, at least 170 are Jews, including 10 Israelis.
"If funding for science in Israel had been higher, we would have won more Nobel Prizes," said Michaeli. "Israeli scientists are smart, not spoiled. We think a lot because our survival is based on being excellent at what we do. We are trained to be very focused, efficient and innovative. These are the necessary qualities needed to make a discovery worthy of a Nobel Prize. And it is because of our many funders, like the (Cleveland-based) Myers Foundation, that allow us to continue to make groundbreaking research."