Cohen is the director of the newly established National Institute of Biotechnology in the Negev (NIBN), associated with Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva. He said Israel is an ideal place for such research “because we exist beyond the pressures for conformity that you have in the U.S.” He added that Israel is a much better atmosphere for interdisciplinary collaboration as well.
“At Weizmann I share students with physicists, chemists and mathematicians. It is easy to talk to people here; everyone is free and generous with their ideas. There is a feeling that we are a small country and we have to pull together – and we do,” he said.
Double-blind trials are being held at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem and Sheba Multiple Sclerosis Center at Sheba Hospital, a multi-disciplinary treatment facility which treats more than 60% of Israel’s MS patients. The center, founded in 1995, offers diagnostic and treatment services through preventive and rehabilitative care.
Multiple sclerosis is caused by white blood cells that attack the central nervous system and destroy the sclera which coat the nerves that run throughout the body. As the sclera is destroyed, the body deteriorates, often leading to severe disability and sometimes death.
Professor Anat Achiron, director of the center and a former student of Cohen’s, is leading the research team at Sheba, where 47 patients have participated in the trial thus far. Some received the real vaccine and others received a placebo.
In the real treatment, patients are vaccinated with cells taken from those in the early stages of the disease and processed in a way that causes them to become inactive.
The inactive cells are then injected into the patients’ bodies in a massive dose which triggers the body’s immune system to destroy them as well as any that might appear in the future.
Cohen has been working on the revolutionary new treatment since 1981, when he published an initial study with Avraham Bin-Nun that showed that T-cells could be adapted to help the body fight diseases they themselves cause.
T-cells, a type of lymphocyte, are blood cells which play a role in the body’s immune system. The “T” stands for thymus, the organ where T-cells complete their development.
Cohen is careful not to raise false hopes and warns that it is too soon to draw conclusions before the trials are completed and the data analyzed.
“Only when we discover who among the patients is getting the vaccine and who is getting the placebo will we be able to assess absolutely the precise influence of the vaccine,” he said, but was optimistic about the potential for success.