U-M Partners with Israel's Technion for Cardio Research

Date February 7, 2013 05:50

HAIFA - The number one killer of both men and women in the United States is heart disease, according to the National Institute of Health. Researchers at the University of Michigan are working to change that. Partnering with colleagues at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, scientists are investigating new ways to attack the causes of heart disease.

Some of the research currently being undertaken includes using ultrasound energy to deliver a special type of gene so that an irregular heartbeat can be corrected. This project uses Israeli technology to deliver a gene that was discovered by researchers at U-M. There is also a program of drug discovery. Specifically, researchers are looking to discover new drugs out of Israeli organic compounds found in the Dead Sea, desert, and other areas in Israel.

The collaboration is co-led on the U-M side by David J. Pinsky, M.D., the Ruth Professor/Chief of Cardiovascular Medicine and Director at the U-M Cardiovascular Center, Alan Saltiel, PhD., the Mary Sue Coleman Professor and Director, U-M Life Sciences Institute, and on the Technion side by Michael Aviram, Ph.D. professor at the Technion and director of the Clinical Research Institute, Stat Laboratory and Lipid Research Laboratory. Faculty at the Weizmann institute will also be joining this leadership team.

Prof. Aviram, who has published 360 papers, written 34 chapters in books, and has over 10,000 Citations, is focused on discovering ways to combat "bad" cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoprotein).

"Everyone knows that a high level of cholesterol is bad, but it is not only about quantity but also quality," said Aviram.

"When cholesterol is getting damaged by oxidation, which is like what happens when iron rusts, it will deposit in the arteries. So, you want anti-oxidation of cholesterol in the arteries," he said.

Avriam said that his work will likely result in a pill that will provide many nutrients found in the Mediterranean diet, notably compounds from pomegranate juice and red wine, in addition to enzymes known as paraoxinases. These break down previously oxidized cholesterol. This is the most innovative part of Aviram's work, the ability to repair cholesterol that has already been negatively impacted by oxidation.

Aviram who spent a sabbatical year at the University of Michigan and has also worked at Columbia, the University of Washington and the University of Illinois, says that U-M is special.

"They (the other universities) are all excellent, but in my specific field of cardiovascular research, U-M is probably the best for me. (U-M) is really excellent in the sense that they do everything that they can in order to make collaboration between different disciplines," he said.

"You can have good science, but if you don’t collaborate, you can't get too far, because you always need different ways of thinking, different ideologies. You can see this kind of collaboration at U-M in almost every department."

This institutional philosophy, early connections forged between U-M and Israeli researchers by Prof. Saltiel, and a substantial gift from the D. Dan and Betty Kahn Foundation, all contributed to the birth of the University of Michigan's partnership with the Technion.

"I believe we are the greatest public research intuition in the U.S. and there is an importance with having a great public institute partner with a great Israeli institution," said Pinsky, who is also an inventor with over a dozen patents.

"We have platforms in China, Brazil, Ghana, so why not also in Israel? We want to be broadly international and one of differences with Israel is that Israel brings technology to the table," he said.

Pinsky's research is focused on learning more about the ways in which blood vessels change their properties after normal blood flow is interrupted. This is important because these changes can lead to inflammation, blood clots, and swelling with fluid accumulation, all of which can be extremely dangerous, fatal conditions. Protective molecules in the blood vessel wall are being used in an attempt to limit damage related to these problems in conditions such as strokes, heart attacks, and others.

"The Technion develops wonderful technology, but they have different training," said Pinsky, noting that foreign universities usually have less time for teaching compared to U.S. universities.

The partnership program entails multiple aspects of collaboration. These include joint research projects, exchange of scientists for learning, research, and interaction, symposiums, and clinical educational exchanges.

"We took all these individual partnerships that existed among scientists and made them into one partnership, in order to fuse our efforts in the biomedical sciences. Beyond that, we thought we should take the top few research institutions in Israel and create one common platform to work with them at U-M," said Pinsky.

"In our program, the money is split equally between U-M and Technion researchers who join forces for one common project, one based here in Michigan and one based there in Israel. Each brings a unique angle," he said.

"Research is not a quick process, but it is a critical process. The immediate impact is the clinical training program. We just trained an Israeli in cardiology. Now, she will go back as faculty, teach students in Israel, and work on patients using skills she acquired at Michigan," he said.

"It is like when you throw a pebble in water, it ripples and moves on and on, that bit of training. People who don’t even come to to the University of Michigan, will be taught and will practice U-M methodology," Pinsky said.

One of the most popular parts of the program amongst participants has been the symposiums. The first one took place in 2011 in Ann Arbor and the Technion, based in Haifa, Israel, hosted the second one last December.

"We brought of a diverse group of people to Israel, different backgrounds, different nationalities. I asked for a show of hands of who had never been, and maybe 10 hands went up, and then 7 hands were raised when I asked who had only been once," said Pinsky.

"Uniformly everyone thought it was fantastic, they really liked it, people want to go back. Organic, independent partnerships have evolved, and the food was much better than I remembered," he said.

For Aviram's part, the food in Michigan also did not leave the best initial impression.

"I don’t see anything special about the food in Michigan, I think we have much better food in Israel," he said.

"I think our diet is much healthier than the American diet in general, but all over the States, they are starting to implement the diet and lifestyle of the Mediterranean diet," he said.

Still, Aviram enjoyed the Midwest values and pace of life he experienced.

"In Michigan, there are good people, very easy to get along with. I enjoyed my sabbatical and trip for the symposium very much. The symposiums are very high level scientific meetings and we've already seen that we can collaborate…because we share similar research topics." said Aviram.

The next symposium is schedule for this coming fall in Ann Arbor.

"Probably before it gets too cold," said Pinsky, who regrettably went to Ohio State University for medical school, though he pointed out that he has now been a Wolverine longer than he was a Buckeye.

Bringing things back to a serious note, Pinsky discussed the importance of research partnerships, such as the one he leads.

"Rambam Hospital (The hospital with which the Technion is affiliated) treats Arabs and Jews alike. Programs like this one validate science as apolitical, we're trying to improve human health. It's of huge value."


For more information about the partnership program, contact Prof. David Pinky at dpinksy@umich.edu.


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Posted February 7, 2013 05:50