Meet the Expert: Professor Ruth Arnon

"When I get up in the morning there’s nothing that I’d rather do than go to the lab"

Professor Ruth Arnon is one of the world’s most eminent biochemists. She is co-creator of Teva’s first innovative medicine, used for 25 years by people around the world. Aged 87 years, she is still doing ground-breaking work, heading the scientific advisory board of BiondVax Pharmaceuticals, a biopharmaceutical company developing a universal influenza vaccine based on decades of her research at the Weizmann Institute.

To celebrate “International Day of Women and Girls in Science” in February, and to highlight women who have influenced Teva’s 120 year history, Professor Arnon talks about scientific breakthroughs, pandemics and vaccines, and the importance of picking a career that excites you.

As a child I read biographies of scientists. I remember the description of Marie Curie’s excitement when she went into the lab in the middle of the night and saw the glow from her samples in the experiment because of the radioactivity. At the time I didn’t know that this was called scientific research, but I knew it was what I wanted to do. In school, I focused on natural sciences and life sciences and continued them into university.

I wanted to better understand multiple sclerosis (MS). In 1967, when I was at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, I began to research MS with my research colleagues, Prof. Michael Sela and Dr. Dvora Teitelbaum. We studied it because it was an auto-immune disease which we were trying to understand. Our initial aim was to develop a synthetic polymer of amino acids similar to a protein involved in MS. The idea was that the polymer would mimic the disease in animals, but it didn’t work.

We almost gave up on the research project into MS. But then we realized that the synthetic proteins we created could be used to affect the disease. We worked on that plan for almost 30 years after the project began.

When we saw that the proteins could be used to affect the disease, we realized that we were onto something. No company would undertake the risk or expense of developing a product if they didn’t have patent protection. When I speak with young scientists, I always advise that if they have a finding that has the potential to have a therapeutic use, take out a patent.

The thing that gives me the greatest satisfaction is when I get an email or a letter from a patient. I get tears in my eye from these messages. It gives me a sense of excitement and satisfaction that something I helped make in a laboratory has touched the lives of millions of people. It has been one of the highlights of my career.

Breakthroughs in science can come from unexpected places. One lesson I’ve learned in my career is that you should always be open minded. Sometimes, what you’re focused on is important but if you look at related things, or findings from your research, you may be able to find something even more exciting.

When I first began to work in science, there were very few women in leading positions in science. However, in Israel, when I began my career, we had quite a few women in science, including at the Weizman Institute where I started as a PhD student. There were several female professors. There was always an example to follow.

If a young person is interested in a career in science, girl, boy, man or woman, my advice is to do something that really excites you and that you love.  Even today, when I get up in the morning there’s nothing that I’d rather do than go to the lab.

Today, at Weizman I am still doing research in the same area. All the time we are finding new things, new cells and more understanding of cytokine storms, a physiological reaction in which the innate immune system causes an uncontrolled and excessive release of pro-inflammatory signaling molecules called cytokines. This research could even be related to the COVID-19 story and how the virus may induce similar cytokine storms.

The Covid-19 vaccines are the first time a vaccine has been developed in less than one year to fight an infectious disease. This is something we should all appreciate. It’s also the first time that a vaccine has been based on a messenger RNA (mRNA) and not a component of the virus, which is put into our body to trigger an immune response.

Some people who are anti-vaccine have no understanding of the science of the vaccines. Maybe the urgent need for a vaccine for Covid will mean more people are at peace with vaccinations.

There is very intense research about vaccines, especially the development of a universal vaccine for influenza, which I’m involved in. The coronavirus may turn out to be  similar to influenza in that every year another strain emerges that the previous year’s vaccine doesn’t protect against. As with influenza, you may need to develop a new vaccine for each new strain, although it’s too early to say.

I wish Teva all the best in celebrating their 120th anniversary and the 25th anniversary of their first innovative medicine (a milestone in my life as well). Teva was one of the first companies that started very small in Israel and grew to be a global company helping millions of patients around the world. I'm a great admirer of their journey.

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