Meet Our Faculty: Prof. Gur Yaari

Meet Prof. Gur Yaari of the Alexander Kofkin Faculty of Engineering at Bar-Ilan University who was recently informed that the research consortium he established would receive a “tiny” grant of 9 million Euros from the EU.

“The European Union issued a call to submit proposals for the development and establishment of medical databases or genetic sequences, and we put together a large group of people and submitted a proposal focusing on databases of the immune system’s genetic sequences,” says Yaari, 46. “Our proposal included a few goals: establishing a network of databases to cope with vast amounts of recorded sequences, designing communication protocols that will enable selective and secure data sharing, and developing algorithms to process Big Data and produce significant biological information. Normally, organizing all the information required for a proposal such as this, writing and submitting it, takes anywhere between three to six months. We received the call for submissions only three weeks before the deadline, and those three weeks included the Passover holiday. Yet somehow, we managed to submit the proposal on time. We didn’t sleep or do much else during those three weeks, but we pulled it off,” says Yaari.

Yaari, a married father of three, completed his PhD in Physics at the Hebrew University. During his post doc at Yale University, he specialized in Computational Immunology, and by the time he joined the Faculty of Engineering at Bar-Ilan, he was able to establish the Computational Systems Immunology Lab, where his team focuses on genetic sequencing of biological data. He is also an active member of the AIRR (Adaptive Immune Receptor Repertoire) community, bringing together professionals specializing in genetic sequencing of the immune system. It was through AIRR that he heard of the call for submissions. “One of the grant’s prerequisites is that at least one of the partners in the project must be Canadian. Coincidentally, I have been in contact with a research group in Vancouver, whose members are the leaders of the AIRR community,” explains Yaari.

“When we decided to submit the proposal together, we asked 18 additional research groups to join us: Three other Israeli groups – from Haifa University, from the Belinson Medical Center’s new Personalized Medicine Center, and a hi-tech company from Herzliya. There’s also another group from Toronto, and others from the US, Portugal, Spain, Germany, France, Norway and Belgium. Some of these are university research groups, some are industry and some operate in hospitals, with a range of specialties: genetic sequencing, computer science, computation biology, immunology, statistics, and machine learning,” shares Yaari.

“The EU is, of course, interested in advancing science, but another EU priority is to advanced European industry, so these projects are becoming gradually more applicable. Our contacts with the industry, with pharmaceutical companies and with genetic sequencing companies, in collaboration with clinical partners, who are participating in order to learn about the immune system’s reaction to a range of diseases, rendered our proposals highly competitive. Of course, the grant itself is quite competitive – the chances of winning it are between 5-10%. So we were very happy to have won it.”

Having secured the grant, in four years the consortium members intend to establish a system flexible and resilient enough to enable opening databases of immune system genetic sequencing in hospitals, in pharmaceutical companies and in biomedical engineering companies. “At the end of the day, this is a technological engineering project, aiming to create a dispersed network of databases. It includes many technical and engineering elements,” says Yaari. “I am personally interested in the type of data: the ability to share, compare and analyze immune system genetic sequencing can really advance the discovery of a new generation of biomarkers and new methods of controlling the immune system. These discoveries, in turn, can be used for a vast range of medical treatments, such as vaccines and immunotherapy.

Yaari points out that this project has extensive clinical implications: “The biggest advantage of this specific research field of genetic sequencing and immune systems is that fact that each and every disease somehow relates to the immune system – from autoimmune diseases such as Celiac and Multiple Sclerosis, through bacterial and viral infections such as hepatitis and the flu, to cancer. Every single one of these diseases is critically connected to the immune system, and especially to immunological repertoires,” he says. “As such, and thanks to technological and algorithmic advancements, nearly every medical research conducted in the past few years makes it a point to also examine immune system elements. The database we intend to establish thanks to this generous grant will handle analysis, processing and availability of all this information, and will help advance the treatment of many diseases, especially when it comes to immunotherapy."

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Originally posted on the Alexander Kofkin Faculty of Engineering's Winter 2019 Newsletter