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How Technion Physicists Cracked a Mystery of Biology

By Shlomo Maital



A team of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology physicists (led by Profs. Kinneret Keren and Erez Braun, with a group of students) has published breakthrough research in the journal Cell Reports. It is unusual for physicists to publish in a biology journal. Here is the story.

   The subject of the  research was the amazing ability of the “hydra”, a tiny fresh water animal, 1 cm. in size (about half an inch), to regenerate itself. The hydra’s skeleton has a built-in memory that enables it to regenerate.   If you take a piece of hydra tissue, it can soon regenerate the entire animal. But how?   Until now, it was thought that this worked through chemical signals that guided the tissue on how to create a head, tentacles and a foot.

   But the new Technion study finds a different explanation. It is done with thin protein fibers. The skeleton of the protein fibers survive, and they instruct cells how to arrange themselves to create an adult body. First, the pieces of tissue severed from the hydra form a small ball. This forces the protein fibers to balance the preservation of the old skeleton structure and adaptation to the new ball. New body parts develop, based on the pattern information stored in the skeleton. The ball soon sprouts a mouth and a whole new animal. The physicist researchers used their science to understand the physical role of the “ball”.

     Could this one day lead to a technology that enables humans to regenerate their body parts?   Far fetched? Indeed.   But it could happen.

     The fruitful research of physicists in biology reminds me of a meeting I had with a distinguished Indian scientist, during a recent visit, who decades ago pioneered in biophysics, which has since yielded huge bounties.

     Innovator – if you can link two fields that are heretofore unconnected, you may come up with change-the-world ideas.


Charles Feeney: James Bond of Philanthropy

By Shlomo Maital


Charles Feeney

     I doubt readers have ever heard of Charles Feeney. Today’s New York Times tells his amazing story. It deserves to be widely known and imitated.

     Feeney will be 86 years old on April 23. Wikipedia recounts: He was born in New Jersey during the Great Depression and came from a modest background of blue collar Irish-American parents in Elizabeth, New Jersey. His ancestry traces to County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.

     He served as a U.S. Air Force radio operator during the Korean War, and began his career selling duty-free liquor to US naval personnel at Mediterranean ports in the 1950s. He attended Cornell University on the GI bill, and in 1960, based on his navy experience, set up a company that sold duty-free items to travelers. It became a booming success. He used some of his money to invest cleverly in high-tech startups, like Facebook, Priceline, E-Trade, Alibaba and Legent.

     But Feeney’s story is not about another successful entrepreneur. In 1984 he founded Atlantic Philanthropies, a collection of foundations – without revealing he was the benefactor – and transferred all his billions to it, and promised to shut it down, after giving away his entire fortune, $8 billion. Five years ago, he still had $1.5 b. left. Would he succeed, before his passing? Yes. It is now officially all gone.

     And Feeney? He lives modestly with his wife, in a rented New York apartment.  He flies economy class. He eats in diners. He left himself $2 million.

       I have a somewhat personal link to Feeney. As a Cornell alum, he gave a huge sum, $350 m., to fund the Cornell-Technion project that will create a new high-tech university on Roosevelt Island, in Manhattan.

       His philanthropy has been effective. One of his grants proposed reforms to America’s healthcare system, which led to the Affordable Care Act. And Feeney has scrupulously avoided any limelight – his backing of the Atlantic Philanthropies was revealed against his wishes. His secretiveness led to the “James Bond” appellate.

       The New York Times article uses the story of Feeney to provide a backhanded slap at Donald Trump, who typifies the diametric oppositse of everything Charles Feeney stands for and accomplished.  

Quantum Computer: Breakthrough?

By Shlomo Maital


       After my blog declaring the repeal of Moore’s Law, and as semiconductor technology ‘hits the wall’, here comes a breakthrough, “the next big thing”. It’s very esoteric based on quantum physics. Here is the very well-written report by Ido Efrati from the Israeli daily Haaretz:

   Four experts at the Technion devise a step toward production of a quantum computer, in research recently published in the prestigious journal, Science. Their recent article, entitled, “Deterministic Generation of a Cluster State of Entangled Photons,” already praised by fellow physicists, represents a scientific breakthrough in quantum theory. The innovation was developed in the laboratory of Prof. David Gershoni of the Technion’s Faculty of Physics, in cooperation with doctoral students Ido Schwartz and Dan Cogan, and Prof. Nathaniel Lindner   and has the potential to influence the future of communications, encryption and computerization.

   Gershoni and his colleagues have tackled a major problem in attempts to develop quantum computers, coming closer to resolving the issue of how to create qubit units in an initiated and controlled manner to enable construction of such a computer.

Physicists and technology firms have pursued the idea of producing a quantum computer for about three decades, in hopes of transporting the world of information and computers to entirely different worlds. The idea goes back to physicist Richard Feynman who proposed the idea of quantum computerization in the 1980s. In effect such a machine would process data but in contrast to a classical computer, it would utilize the characteristics of quantum mechanics.    

   The difference is that whereas in the classical computer the basic unit of information is a bit,  (zero or one);  a quantum computer uses a quantum bit known as a “qubit.” The difference between the two units is enormous. (See Diagram above).

A quantum computer can more quickly calculate what could take the fastest conventional computers millions of years, if not more, to resolve. It can potentially contribute greatly to the fields of medical research, advanced artificial intelligence, securing information and developing codes, “and in effect any field where calculating power is of significance,” Gershoni said.

Targeted Drug Delivery: Promising New Assault on Cancer

By Shlomo   Maital   


According to today’s Haaretz newspaper,  one of my Technion colleagues,  Dr. Avi Schroeder (see photo),  of the Chemical Engineering faculty,  has developed a promising new innovation for curing cancer.  He heads the Laboratory for Targeted Drug Delivery and Personalized Medicine Technology. 

  “Being an engineer, I thought of an engineering approach to prescreen drugs on a personal basis BEFORE we begin a treatment cycle,” he explains.

   The idea is simple.  It is like testing for an allergy, by scratching the skin and applying a tiny amount of the allergenic material.   In Schroeder’s approach, the cancer patient is given a battery of drugs, in miniscule doses – and then tested to see which if any actually reach the tumor, penetrate the cancer cells (which have clever defences) and kill them.  There are over 200 different anti-cancer drugs.   Each individual may react differently to them, depending on their genetic makeup and the type of cancer they have, and even depending on their gender.  (Thanks to studies done at Univ. of California, Irvine, we now know that women react completely differently to drugs than men – and America’s FDA now requires drug testing to include gender in the clinical trials, both for mice and for humans, to see if there are indeed differential gender effects). 

     In his method, Schroeder creates nanoparticles containing drugs “barcoded” with DNA.  The process of attaching DNA to each molecule of the drug is not expensive any more, because DNA has become quite cheap.  These nanoparticles are injected into the patient’s blood stream.  They travel around the body and when they identify a tumor, the particles penetrate its cells through micro-fissures that cancer cells typically have.  The drugs are then released into the cells.  Some of the drugs will work and kill the tumor; some won’t.  To find out, the tumor is then biopsied, and cells are examined individually.  The dead cells are separated from the living ones to see “which drug barcode is the most associated with killing cancer cells, and which are not.” 

    So far, testing is in the preclinical stage.  Schroeder is looking for financing to bring the idea to market.   The beauty is,  it is based on drugs that already exist.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
February 2017
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