U.S. Can Benefit From Israeli Biotechnology

Ultra-fast AIDS tests, biological control agents that boost plant growth and techniques to breed more fertile cows are a few of the many biotechnology innovations developed by Israeli researchers described in a recently released study, Breakthrough Dividend: Israeli Innovations in Biotechnology That Could Benefit America, published by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE). The report, by Dr. Irvin Asher, illustrates how greater U.S.-Israel cooperation in the field of biotechnology can stimulate additional benefits for both societies, and profit for companies that engage in joint ventures to develop new products and technologies.

Given the world’s major needs—food, health, energy—biotechnology is one of the most exciting and potentially profitable fields imaginable. U.S. and Israeli companies make ideal partners because the managing and marketing expertise of the Americans complements the highly innovative Israeli R&D community and high-quality/moderate-cost workforce. Many U.S. biotech companies have recognized the potential of such alliances and established Israeli subsidiaries, which also benefit from generous Israeli government R&D incentives and free trade agreements with both the U.S. and Europe. President Clinton recognized the potential for greater cooperation in biotechnology when he made it a priority for the U.S.-Israel Science and Technology Commission.

Biotechnology is big business. America has more than 1,000 biotech companies, with $3.5 billion in 1992 sales, which directly provide almost 100,000 American jobs. Israel, given its much smaller size, domestic market and access to venture capital, has only about 50 domestic biotech companies, employing 3,000 Israelis. Israel’s intensive interest and investment in science, however, give her a scientific status and high-tech impact typical of industrialized countries many times her absolute size. The specific Israeli innovations in biotechnology, moreover, create opportunities for strategic alliances that can benefit the companies involved and, more broadly, the citizens of Israel and the United States.

The abundance of Israeli biotech innovations warrants American attention. These include mice with transplanted human bone marrow that can produce human antibodies; a juvenile-onset diabetes treatment that is 90 percent effective in mice; drugs that decrease recurrent attacks of multiple sclerosis, boost human interferon production and modulate blood clotting and safe new vectors useful in human gene therapy. Israeli researchers also developed new processes for the commercial production of important recombinant proteins such as human and bovine growth hormones, human superoxide dismutase (SOD), human tissue plasminogen-activator, human beta-interferon and human interleukin-6, a promising activator-component in experimental anti-cancer vaccines.

Diagnostics, particularly monoclonal antibody-based test kits, were among Israel’s first biotech successes. Starting with the world’s first ELISA test for chlamydia in 1989, Israelis soon developed high-quality tests for Epstein-Barr virus, cytomegalovirus, herpes I and II viruses, mycoplasmal pneumonia, TSH, hepatitis A and B, anti-sperm antibodies and early pregnancy. They now have simple, ultra-fast and highly accurate two-minute tests for urinary-tract infections and AIDS. Israel’s academic researchers are now shifting their attention to DNA and RNA-based (rather than antibody-based) tests for cancer and other diseases. New products for monitoring blood sugar and diagnosing Alzheimer's disease are also under development.

Foreign experts consistently praise Israeli agricultural biotechnology as unique. Recent successes include increasing yields through the production of chromosome-engineered pasta and bread wheats and raising genetically-engineered tobacco plants that can protect themselves from viral attack. Several other virus-resistant transgenic plants have already been patented. Israeli ELISA-based plant diagnostic tests already protect most U.S. seed potatoes from potato leaf-roll virus. Other researchers have developed diagnostic kits for many other plant viruses, including those affecting beans, tomatoes and tobacco.

Another Israeli specialty is biological control. Israel’s well-known Bacillus thuringiensis var. israelensis (BTI) produces a potent, highly selective, environmentally-safe toxin that kills mosquito and black-fly larvae. BTI formed the basis of a successful mosquito control effort in Massachusetts and a new U.S.-Israel-Jordan biocontrol initiative sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Animals are a major agricultural money-maker; the U.S. produces $72 billion of cattle/dairy/poultry products annually. New Israeli biotech innovations help breed leaner chickens and more fertile cows, diagnose Rift Valley Fever (RVF) and anaplasmosis in cattle and screen for Marek's disease in poultry. Israeli investigators and U.S. collaborators have developed new vaccines against RVF, Newcastle disease and Mycoplasma gallisepticum. They have even produced and successfully tested a vaccine against fish meningitis for use in aquaculture. Perhaps the most innovative new Israeli vaccine reduces tick-borne diseases in cattle by binding special receptors located near the tick’s mouth, which maintain the feeding response.

Significantly, the report found that Israel moves its diagnostic discoveries from the laboratory to the marketplace in record time (3-5.3 years) at record low budgets ($0.9-1.2 million), compared to their U.S. counterparts (8-11 years, $25-30 million).

Israel could also play a significant role in speeding up U.S. drug approvals. Every month’s delay can cost a U.S. drug firm $10 million in lost sales, but because of Israel’s fast enlistment of patients, low dropout rates and lower overall costs, clinical trials can be conducted more quickly and efficiently in Israel. This would increase American competitiveness, which would lead to more sales, production, and, ultimately, jobs.