Prof. Shulamit Michaeli: Gene Silencing
If the research performed at Prof. Shulamit Michaeli's lab at the Bar-Ilan Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials (BINA) proceeds as planned, in one decade she will be able to say she helped find a cure for cancer. The treatment Michaeli is developing is based on "silencing" genes and possibly turning cancer into a chronic and manageable, rather than life-threatening disease.
Prof. Shulamit Michaeli, Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences at Bar-Ilan University and Head of the Life Sciences and Medicine Section of the Israel Science Foundation (ISF), is an incorrigible optimist. If the research projects she is heading at BIU will advance according to plan, they will create a form of treatment that, in about 10 years, will revolutionize the field of oncology. Her scientific development is based on a form of gene silencing. If successful, this treatment will render cancer as a chronic disease. Also, this technique will enable treating and curing such infections as leishmaniasis and others.
"Cancer is an epidemic," explains Michaeli. "Our body is exposed to pesticides and other dangerous substances on a daily basis. Everything we consume is infected at a certain level. These substances create mutations, which eventually cause cancer." Another cancer-conducive factor is life expectancy, which has considerably increased in the past few decades. "The longer we live, the more exposed we are to cancerous substances. Also, as we get older, our body's ability to correct the damage caused by the mutation diminishes, causing older people to be more susceptible to cancer."
In recent years, Michaeli's research has focused on producing nanoparticles for gene silencing, to eradicate cancerous cells, such as pancreatic cancer, which is currently incurable, as is the very virulent lung cancer. Michaeli's research group was one of the first to claim (and prove) that gene silencing takes place not just in the cytoplasm of the cell, but inside the cell nucleus as well. Consequently, the group patented this scientific discovery, which may very well lead to the silencing of the nucleus of telomerase RNA, the active agent in cancerous cells which enables them to continually multiply.
Michaeli's research group is collaborating with the Prof. Jean Paul Lellouch, of the Department of Chemistry, and his group, to fabricate nanosized carriers which will be bound to the cancerous cells and silence them. "We have already preformed experiments on lab rats," explains Michaeli, "and we now have proof that these nanoparticles are able to silence these genes from within the tumor. This phase was concluded successfully, and next is the feasibility experiments in lab rats. We feel we are on our way to achieving our goal."
A secondary objective for developing these nanocarriers is improving the diagnosis and treatment processes. "We are producing nanoparticles onto which we are attaching polymers, onto which we attach the RNA," explains Michaeli. "These nanoparticles are visible by MRI, thus facilitating the diagnosis and treatment processes." This new method is much more favorable than chemotherapy, claims Michaeli.
"Chemotherapeutical drugs can't differentiate between a malignant cell and other cells. Also, gene silencing is a personalized form of medical treatment, in that we are focusing exclusively on the mutant cells."
Over the years, several advancements have been made in the field. Certain forms of cancer are considered chronic, rather than terminal, even today. Breast cancer mortality rates are down, thanks to better treatments. Innovative treatments for melanoma are prolonging patients' life expectancy. "There are impressive breakthroughs in the field," summarizes Michaeli. "However, the true breakthrough will have to be a combination of several treatment methods. This is true for cancer, AIDS, and infectious diseases. Within a year we will probably be able to tell whether our method is applicable and whether it will, in fact, be effective in selectively eradicating cancer."