Michael Sela, immunologist behind the development of new drugs to treat cancer and MS – obituary
Michael Sela, who died at the age of 98, was an Israeli scientist whose research led to the development of new drugs to treat cancer and multiple sclerosis.
His breakthroughs are the result of a combination of serendipity and years of perseverance. In his youth, he had studied under Ephraim Katzir, a biophysicist and future president of Israel who was primarily interested in the properties of polyamino acids.
These are long chains of molecules that form the building blocks of proteins. Ephraim Katzir hoped that synthetic poly-amino acids would have useful applications in chemistry, but Sela was more interested in their biological properties. Specifically, he thought they could function as antigens – molecules that would elicit a unique immune response in the body.
In 1967, Sela and two colleagues, Ruth Arnon and Dvora Teitelbaum, attempted to trigger symptoms of multiple sclerosis in laboratory animals by injecting them with synthetic proteins. The project failed. Eventually, however, it dawned on the researchers that the injections might actually suppress MS symptoms rather than cause them.
The drug based on their discovery, sold under the brand name Copaxone, was finally approved for use in America in 1996. Although it did not cure the debilitating autoimmune disease, it did make relapses less frequent. , reducing long-term disability.
Today, Copaxone generates billions of dollars in revenue for Israeli drugmaker Teva and has been approved for use in dozens of countries, including Britain.
Michael Sela was born Mieczyslaw Salomonowicz on February 28, 1924, in the Polish town of Tomaszow Mazowiecki. His father owned a successful factory that produced high quality worsted yarns and fabrics.
In 1935, the family moved to Romania to escape the increasingly anti-Semitic policies of the Polish government. When the first pogroms started, they left for British-held Palestine.
Upon arriving in Tel Aviv, 17-year-old Michael worked for several months in a factory that made gauze for the British war effort. Already fluent in Polish, German, Romanian and French, he quickly learned to speak Hebrew and taught himself English by reading from a dictionary.
After studying chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he traveled to Geneva to do a doctorate, but left to help the movement of European Jews – many of whom are Holocaust survivors – to the new state. of Israel.
In 1950, he resumed his academic career at the Weizmann Institute of Science, where he became a student of Ephraim Katzir. He founded the Section of Chemical Immunology in 1963 and was President of the Institute from 1975 to 1985.
While in the lab, Sela conducted extensive research into the structure and function of biologically relevant macromolecules such as proteins and nucleic acids. He worked on creating small molecules that would block cancer cell receptors, preventing the formation and spread of cancerous tumors.
Drugs developed as a result of this research have been used to treat lung cancer, metastatic colorectal cancer, and head and neck carcinomas. Elsewhere, his work on the genetic control of the immune response has led to the development of entirely new fields in immunology.
The awards and honors that Michael Sela received included the Wolf Prize, the Israel Prize and the Albert Einstein Gold Medal from Unesco. Outside of the lab, he pursued a love of dance and music, especially jazz. He was friends with Arthur Rubinstein and served on the board of directors of the international piano competition named in honor of the Polish-American pianist.
Michael Sela’s first wife, Margalit, died in 1975. He is survived by his second wife Sara and three daughters.
Michael Sela, born February 28, 1924, died May 27, 2022