It is the task of pharmaceutical companies to develop potential medications, then market and sell them to patients. And in the halls of academia, scientists are making discoveries about human biology in health and disease. But bridging these two realms—transforming discoveries into effective therapies—has historically been a challenge because of the difficulty in attaining funding to do the expensive and arduous work of exploring the actual applicative potential of compounds.
With that in mind, the Weizmann Institute of Science is establishing the Dr. Barry Sherman Institute for Medicinal Chemistry—thanks to a major gift from the Sherman family of Toronto. It will fund innovative research on compounds that hold promise for becoming therapies for a range of human diseases and disorders, including autoimmune diseases, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and infectious diseases.
Among the investigations that are expected to be undertaken at the Sherman Institute are efforts to develop new antibiotics so as to overcome the growing challenge of antibiotic resistance. Scientists will also harness plant metabolites for potential drugs, including an unprecedented method of bioengineering plants to generate L-DOPA, the leading drug for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease; and they will advance a promising, effective, and inexpensive anti-malaria potential drug compound.
The Sherman Institute will be headed by Dr. Sarel Fleishman of the Department of Biomolecular Sciences. Among other research projects that the Institute will fund is his work, together with Dr. Neta Regev-Rudzki from the same department, on malaria, the most devastating parasitic disease in humans, with hundreds of millions of clinical cases and nearly half a million deaths per year, predominantly of children. The causative agent of severe malaria is the single-cell parasite Plasmodium falciparum, which invades red blood cells and blood vessels.
Several years ago, scientists identified the malaria protein RH5 and its human receptor basigin as an essential nexus on the path to blocking red blood cell invasion and neutralizing the parasite. Nevertheless, because the affinity between RH5 and human basigin is very weak, treatment options would require injecting a large amount of basigin into the patient—a procedure that would be both expensive and dangerous.
The scientists are hard at working devising a method to strengthen the RH5-basigin interaction. Using an advanced computational design strategy, they have developed a mutant of basigin that improves its affinity to RH5 2,000-fold in comparison to its human counterpart. This technology could enable the use of a much lower, more therapeutically relevant, concentration of the designed basigin to block red-blood cell invasion.
“This visionary gift comes at an important moment, when new, sophisticated evaluation and screening tools make it possible to take promising molecules to the next level for the benefit of human health, and the Sherman Foundation is turning this possibility into a reality,” says Prof. Daniel Zajfman, President of the Weizmann Institute. “We are grateful for this partnership with the Sherman family”.
The new Institute is a fitting tribute to Barry Sherman, who understood this challenge as chief executive of one of Canada’s leading pharmaceutical companies. Barry and his wife Honey died tragically in December 2017, and their children established the new Sherman Institute in their father’s memory.
Barry Sherman was a Canadian scientist, businessman and philanthropist. He received his BSc from the University of Toronto on scholarship in engineering physics, and an MSc and PhD on scholarships in astrophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He founded the generic pharmaceutical manufacturer Apotex in 1974 with a mission of improving access to medicines for patients worldwide. It became one of Canada’s leading generic drug companies, and provided more than $50 million in medicines to disaster zones in the last decade.
The Shermans were leading philanthropists in Canada, and also supported many causes in Israel. They supported the Weizmann Institute since the 1980s, where the majority of their support has been directed to research in alternative energy and biomedicine. In their memory, the foundation that bears their name continues to advance their philanthropic goals. In the last year, the Sherman Foundation has also supported postdoctoral awards for women scientists through the Weizmann Institute, and the foundation, in partnership with Apotex, has committed to supporting clinical trials on ALS in Canada.