Time to Care – Tackle Health Challenges and Propose Technological Solutions

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Time to Care – Students from the Technion and Cornell Tech together tackle health challenges and propose technological solutions

The COVID-19 pandemic may have created many obstacles, but it also provided opportunities for finding creative ways to overcome them. On January 14th, joint teams of students from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and Cornell Tech took part in the final event of a semester-long ideation course, where they presented technological solutions for health challenges.

The course represented the first virtual version of the iTrek program, a yearly effort of the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech that brings New York City-based master’s degree students to Israel to collaborate with Technion students and faculty. While COVID may have kept the Cornell Tech students at home, it did not stop them from visiting Israel virtually and working closely with colleagues in Haifa.

This year’s iTrek was organized and executed under the leadership of the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, by Co-Directors Michael Escosia, Assistant Director of Operations, and Lucie Milanez, the Project Manager and Program Coordinator at Technion, and the MindState Ideation Lab. Co-founded by Tamar Many (Shenkar College, Tel Aviv University) and Henk van Assen (Yale, Parsons School of Design), MindState explores societal challenges through an interdisciplinary, human-centric methodology to achieve innovative change.  The main event, titled Time to Care, was a joint project of MindState Ideation Lab, the Technion, and Cornell Tech, with help and cooperation from the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center.

Academic leadership of the program was provided by Assistant Professor Joachim Behar, Director of the Technion Artificial Intelligence in Medicine Laboratory (AIMLab), Professor Ron Brachman, Director of the Jacobs Institute, and Professor Ariel Orda, the Jacobs Program Head at the Technion. Teaching assistance was provided by Sofia Segal of the Faculty of Biomedical Engineering at Technion. 

Twelve multi-disciplinary teams mixed with Technion and Cornell Tech students and professional designers from companies such as Wix, Lightricks, Google, Climacell, and Similar Web took part in the competition through the virtual spaces of Zoom and GatherTown. They, along with mentors from Sourasky Medical Center, tackled problems as varied as communication between patients and staff, challenges of a nurse’s daily routine, early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and even reducing food waste in hospitals.

The winner Defi aims to develop a portable defibrillator, which runs on a mobile phone’s power supply. They based their project off the fact that access and timely application of a defibrillator can save the life of a person suffering from a heart attack. The team of Ravit Abel (Nanoscience and Nanotechnology M.Sc. Candidate), Alon Gilad (Biomedical Engineering M.Eng. candidate) and Idan Shenfeld (B.Sc. in Computer Engineering, Rothschild program) from the Technion, together with Ashley Dai (Operations Research M.Eng. candidate) and Eric Chan (Double M.Sc. candidate in Applied Information Science and Information Systems) from Cornell Tech proposed a conceptual solution which would eliminate the large battery that constitutes most of the existing defibrillator’s bulk and charge it instead within seconds from any mobile phone. An accompanying app would provide instructions, automatically contact emergency services, and provide caregivers real-time information about the patient’s status. If the groups’ conceptual design would prove feasible, the defibrillator could become compact, cheap, and easy to use.

Second prize went to Minder, aimed at helping the elderly population keep track of medication and stay in touch with physicians as part of their daily routine. Third prize winner, Libi, targets patients recovering post-heart-attack by helping reduce a second incident of cardiac arrest through tracking and education.

By bringing together academics and industry leaders and mixing skills, the Ideation Competition was viewed as “an amazing experience.” Following their victory, Defi team members attributed their success to the, “opportunities [they had] to work with top professionals in the field, and to learn about the business side of creating a technological solution concept.” They added that “between us, we all come from different fields; we were able to put together our strengths, come up with different ideas, and achieve together what none of us could have achieved alone.”

Innovation, design thinking, and social impact have always been the driving force of the Jacobs iTrek program. Professor Ronni Gamzu, CEO of Sourasky Medical Center and one of the judges of the competition, concluded the final event by encouraging the teams to “keep on innovating because this is the way to advance medicine, even in the time of an epidemic and pandemic.”

The participating students are either in advanced years of their bachelor’s degrees, or in their graduate degrees. Defi was mentored by Professor Yaron Arbel, director of the Cardiovascular Research Centre at Sourasky Medical Center, and Mr. Eyal Kellner, CIO at the Sourasky Medical Center. The design team assisting them included Elad Rahmin, Oren Elbaz, and Vera Mordehayev from Climacell.

The activity was sponsored by Monday, IMed Medical Habitat, the Technion, the Jacobs Institute at Cornell Tech and the Israel Council for Higher Education. Prize awards in the total amount of $10,000 were provided by the Dr. Joseph Holt and Halaine Maccabee Rose Fund.

Concordia Technion Virtual Exchange

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DONORS SUPPORT CONCORDIA-TECHNION EXCHANGE PROGRAM

Donors Ben Wygodny & Susan Raymer

The restrictions on travel this year won’t stop Rapahel Cohen, Shaked Levi, and Luis Antonio Quesada Jimenez from representing the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology at Concordia’s international Engineering and Commerce (ENGCOMM) Case Competition, which will take place virtually from February 22-27th.

The Technion students’ participation in the competition was sponsored by Susan Raymer and Ben Wygodny, through The Goldie and Joe Raymer Endowment Fund at Concordia University.  The Endowment is an exchange program between students and professors and open to all faculties, which was adapted this year due to Covid for Technion’s virtual participation in the Case Competition.

“We are thrilled with the opportunity for Technion and Concordia students to meet virtually during the Case Competition. Good luck to all!.” Susan Raymer & Ben Wygodny

The Technion students are led by mentor, Ohad Yaniv, and will join teams from around the world in a multi-disciplinary case competition which combines engineering with commerce to overcome genuine industry challenges. Cohen studies Computer Engineering, Shaked is an Aerospace Engineering student, and Jimenez studies Civil Engineering. 

The Goldie and Joe Raymer Endowment Fund at Concordia University was established in 1999 in honour of Susan’s parents, to enable students from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Concordia University to participate in an international exchange program.  Through the exchange, students are provided with rich academic opportunities which help to promote respect, understanding and collaboration amongst different cultures and backgrounds. 

Susan and Ben are Concordia graduates. Both have served on the International Board of Governors of Technion and were awarded an Honorary Fellowship in 2017. Ben served as Montreal chapter president and has continued his involvement with Technion Canada. Their interest is multigenerational as Susan’s parents were instrumental in building a student residence on campus, and their son Adam is active in the Toronto chapter.

To Touch and to Smell – a Nature Experience that Creates Happiness

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To Touch and to Smell –

a Nature Experience that Creates Happiness

A study by three Technion researchers has revealed that simply spending time in nature isn’t enough: to be happy, we need to get really close to it, to touch it and smell it. And surprise: there’s no need to turn off your phone

During the first COVID-19-related lockdown, everyone baked sourdough bread. In the second lockdown, the trend was home gardening, and social media was flooded with a plethora of photos of pot plants and close-ups of colorful succulents. According to researchers, the change in trend can be explained by the fact that the second lockdown found Israelis in lower spirits that even carbs would find it hard to lift. The forced stay that kept entire families indoors turned even the brightest, most beautiful homes into traps that created a sense of being closed in, and their residents tried to mitigate its impacts with a little greenery on which they could feast their eyes and spirits.

Numerous research studies have supported this intuitive choice, demonstrating the importance of nature and green spaces to people’s emotional and physical wellbeing, but a new study has shown that “feasting one’s eyes on greenery” is merely the tip of the iceberg. In order to benefit emotional wellbeing, humans must get close up and physically touch natural elements. In a research study published in Conservation Biology, Technion researchers found that interaction with nature alone is not enough. In order for tangible benefits to be derived, they found it is important that planners design green spaces that positive and close interaction with nature. The effect of interaction of this kind occurs in two stages, In the first, “cues of close psychological distance,” such as smelling and touching natural elements, increase the state of nature relatedness. This state in turn intensifies the pleasure derived by participants.

The researchers, Professor Assaf Shwartz and Dr. Agathe Colléony of the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning, and Dr. Liat Levontin of the William Davidson Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management, explain that closeness to nature improves wellbeing more than passive exposure or simply looking at the green landscape. Based on a survey of 1,023 visitors at Ramat Hanadiv Nature Park, they found that the closer the interaction with nature (for example, interaction that included touching natural elements or smelling flowers), the more the positive affect of visitors was enhanced following the visit to the nature reserve, compared to other visitors who experienced nature from a greater distance (for example, by simply taking a walk).

“Our research has shown that people who have an emotional affinity for nature are generally happier and derive greater benefit from visits to green spaces or nature reserves,” explained Prof. Shwartz.

Following these findings, the researchers conducted an experiment among 303 Technion students. All participants spent half an hour outdoors on campus, with each assigned one of nine different cues-to-experience to perform while walking. These included smelling flowers, taking photographs of nature, touching natural elements, or turning off their phones. The findings showed that participants assigned cues of close psychological distance from nature (smelling and touching natural elements) indeed felt closer to nature and felt better after the walk than the control group (with no cues). Contrary to the prevailing opinion that it is important to experience nature undisturbed, participants who were asked to turn off their phones during the walk interacted less with nature, and reported both an increase in their negative feelings and a decrease in positive feelings after the walk was recorded. According to Dr. Levontin, “Turning off the phone may possibly cause people to think about it more and lead to FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and does not enable significant interaction with nature.”

“People today are increasingly alienated from nature, and this has negative implications on their health and wellbeing and on the importance they attribute to the world of nature,” said Prof. Shwartz. “It’s important to plan green spaces that enable significant interactions with nature to improve our affinity to nature and emotional wellbeing.”

“I think we all felt it in the recent lockdowns,” added Dr. Levontin. “But it’s possible that as a result of our growing alienation from nature, planning green spaces is not enough to create a significant nature experience and contribute to quality of life. So thought must be given to how to encourage people to go outdoors and enhance their nature experience.”

“This is precisely where our research comes in,” Prof. Shwartz explained. “In the experiment, we demonstrated that with the help of minor cues, which we called “cues-to-experience,” people can be brought closer to nature. We also found that it is possible to enhance the nature experience among visitors, as well as its positive effect after the visit. Even smartphones can be used to create meaningful nature experiences for all of us in parks, gardens, and nature reserves. At the same time, it is important to make sure to also protect biodiversity and not to encourage interaction that is liable to be harmful to nature, such as picking flowers. Landscape architects and environmental planners need to think about solutions that will encourage the creation of interactions with nature, whose negative impact on biodiversity is minimal and positive impact is strong.”

The paper in Conservation Biology can be accessed READ MORE

Mathematical Conjectures: The Ramanujan Machine

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The Ramanujan Machine

 Using AI and computer automation, Technion researchers have developed a “conjecture generator” that creates mathematical conjectures, which are considered to be the starting point for developing mathematical theorems. They have already used it to generate a number of previously unknown formulas. The study, which was published in the journal Nature, was carried out by undergraduates from different faculties under the tutelage of Assistant Professor Ido Kaminer of the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Faculty of Electrical Engineering at the Technion.

The project deals with one of the most fundamental elements of mathematics – mathematical constants. A mathematical constant is a number with a fixed value that emerges naturally from different mathematical calculations and mathematical structures in different fields. Many mathematical constants are of great importance in mathematics, but also in disciplines that are external to mathematics, including biology, physics, and ecology. The golden ratio and Euler’s number are examples of such fundamental constants. Perhaps the most famous constant is pi, which was studied in ancient times in the context of the circumference of a circle. Today, pi appears in numerous formulas in all branches of science, with many math aficionados competing over who can recall more digits after the decimal point: 3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058209749445923078164062862089986280348253421170679821480865132823066470938446095505822317253594081284811174502841027019385211055596446229489549303820…

The Technion researchers proposed and examined a new idea: The use of computer algorithms to automatically generate mathematical conjectures that appear in the form of formulas for mathematical constants.

A conjecture is a mathematical conclusion or proposition that has not been proved; once the conjecture is proved, it becomes a theorem. Discovery of a mathematical conjecture on fundamental constants is relatively rare, and its source often lies in mathematical genius and exceptional human intuition. Newton, Riemann, Goldbach, Gauss, Euler, and Ramanujan are examples of such genius, and the new approach presented in the paper is named after Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Ramanujan, an Indian mathematician born in 1887, grew up in a poor family, yet managed to arrive in Cambridge at the age of 26 at the initiative of British mathematicians Godfrey Hardy and John Littlewood. Within a few years he fell ill and returned to India, where he died at the age of 32. During his brief life he accomplished great achievements in the world of mathematics. One of Ramanujan’s rare capabilities was the intuitive formulation of unproven mathematical formulas. The Technion research team therefore decided to name their algorithm “the Ramanujan Machine,” as it generates conjectures without proving them, by “imitating” intuition using AI and considerable computer automation.

According to Prof. Kaminer, “Our results are impressive because the computer doesn’t care if proving the formula is easy or difficult, and doesn’t base the new results on any prior mathematical knowledge, but only on the numbers in mathematical constants. To a large degree, our algorithms work in the same way as Ramanujan himself, who presented results without proof. It’s important to point out that the algorithm itself is incapable of proving the conjectures it found – at this point, the task is left to be resolved by human mathematicians.”

The conjectures generated by the Technion’s Ramanujan Machine have delivered new formulas for well-known mathematical constants such as pi, Euler’s number (e), Apéry’s constant (which is related to the Riemann zeta function), and the Catalan constant. Surprisingly, the algorithms developed by the Technion researchers succeeded not only in creating known formulas for these famous constants, but in discovering several conjectures that were heretofore unknown. The researchers estimate this algorithm will be able to significantly expedite the generation of mathematical conjectures on fundamental constants and help to identify new relationships between these constants.

As mentioned, until now, these conjectures were based on rare genius. This is why in hundreds of years of research, only a few dozens of formulas were found. It took the Technion’s Ramanujan Machine just a few hours to discover all the formulas for pi discovered by Gauss, the “Prince of Mathematics,” during a lifetime of work, along with dozens of new formulas that were unknown to Gauss.

According to the researchers, “Similar ideas can in the future lead to the development of mathematical conjectures in all areas of mathematics, and in this way provide a meaningful tool for mathematical research.”

The research team has launched a website, RamanujanMachine.com, which is intended to inspire the public to be more involved in the advancement of mathematical research by providing algorithmic tools that will be available to mathematicians and the public at large. Even before the article was published, hundreds of students, experts, and amateur mathematicians had signed up to the website.

The research study started out as an undergraduate project in the Rothschild Scholars Technion Program for Excellence with the participation of Gal Raayoni and George Pisha, and continued as part of the research projects conducted in the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Faculty of Electrical Engineering with the participation of Shahar Gottlieb, Yoav Harris, and Doron Haviv. This is also where the most significant breakthrough was made – by an algorithm developed by Shahar Gottlieb – which led to the article’s publication in Nature. Prof. Kaminer adds that the most interesting mathematical discovery made by the Ramanujan Machine’s algorithms to date relates to a new algebraic structure concealed within a Catalan constant. The structure was discovered by high school student Yahel Manor, who participated in the project as part of the Alpha Program for science-oriented youth. Prof. Kaminer added that, “Industry colleagues Uri Mendlovic and Yaron Hadad also participated in the study, and contributed greatly to the mathematical and algorithmic concepts that form the foundation for the Ramanujan Machine. It is important to emphasize that the entire project was executed on a voluntary basis, received no funding, and participants joined the team out of pure scientific curiosity.”

Prof. Ido Kaminer is the head of the Robert and Ruth Magid Electron Beam Quantum Dynamics Laboratory. He is a faculty member in the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Faculty of Electrical Engineering and the Solid State Institute. Kaminer is affiliated with the Helen Diller Quantum Center and the Russell Berrie Nanotechology Institute.

Click here for the paper in Nature

World Cancer Day: New Pathway for Attacking Cancer Cells

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Technion Researchers Discover New Pathway for Attacking Cancer Cells

When treating cancer, researchers are always searching for ways to remove cancer cells

Prof. Tomer Shlomi

while minimizing damage to the rest of the body. One possible approach is 

to find processes unique to cancer cells, and which would allow specific targeting. If such a process can be disrupted, only those cells would be affected.

A process (or absence thereof) can be unique to some types of cancer, and not be present in others. In such a case, we would want a simple way to recognize whether a particular tumor possesses the unique trait or not. The implication of this question is whether the tumor would respond to this or that treatment, allowing us to match a treatment to the patient who is likely to be helped by it, rather than going by trial and error.

Professor Tomer Shlomi’s research group discovered just such a process – one that may be targeted in cancer cells without causing damage to healthy ones, findings that have been published in Cell Metabolism.

The folate cycle is a process essential to DNA and RNA production. As a result, it is highly important to both cancer cells and healthy cells. Because DNA production is a critical stage in cell division, and thus in tumor growth, the folate cycle is a common target for chemotherapy. However, for the very same reason, there are significant side effects to attacking it.

There are, in fact, two folate cycles – one happening in the mitochondria (an organelle inside the cell), and one in the cytosol (the fluid that fills the cell). A healthy cell can switch from one to the other. A variety of tumor cells, Professor Shlomi’s group discovered, rely on the cytosolic pathway exclusively. The implication is, if treatment were to target the cytosolic folate cycle, healthy cells would switch to the mitochondrial cycle and would not be harmed, leaving tumor cells to die.

It remains to recognize whether a particular tumor is indeed one in which the mitochondrial folate cycle is non-functional, and here too Shlomi’s team provided. RFC is a transporter protein that regulates intracellular folate levels. Low RFC – low folate. Low folate, the group discovered, is devastating to the mitochondrial cycle. So low RFC tumors are the ones that would be affected by cytosolic cycle-blocking treatments.

Both the pathway that may be attacked, and the way to recognize which tumors the attack would be effective against have thus been found.

For the full article on Cell Metabolism click here.

Cancer Breakthroughs from Technion

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WORLD CANCER DAY

Technion researchers and alumni are revolutionizing diagnostics and treatments for cancer patients around the world. Less invasive testing, targeted therapies and personalized treatment options will maximize health outcomes for those living with cancer.  February 4th is World Cancer Day and we are proud to share the most recent cancer breakthroughs from the Technion.

DESTROYING BRAIN TUMOURS

Technion alumni-founded Insightec is partnering with California-based SonALAsense and the Ivy Brain Tumor Center in Arizona to test a promising non-invasive treatment to effectively and safely destroy deadly brain tumors. Insightec founder and vice chairman of the board Dr. Kobi Vortman is a Technion alumnus.

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PRECISION CANCER TREATMENT

Nobel Laureate and Technion Distinguished Professor Aaron Ciechanover discusses Israeli startup OncoHost’s PROphet system, which combines life-science research and advanced machine-learning technology to develop personalized strategies to maximize the success of cancer therapy. OncoHost was founded in 2017 following more than a decade of academic research led by chief scientific adviser Technion Professor Yuval Shaked, head of the Rappaport Technion Integrated Cancer Center. Prof. Ciechanover is also on OncoHost’s board of scientific directors.

 

NOVOCURE’S VALUE RISES ON THE NYSE

Image result for nyse

Novocure, whose FDA-approved Optune system is used for treating glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, now has the highest valuation of any Israeli health care company on the New York Stock Exchange. The product was approved by Israel in 2020 for the treatment of mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer caused by asbestos. According to the company, the technology could also theoretically be effective in treating pancreatic, ovarian, lung and other difficult to treat cancer types. Novocure was founded in 2000 by Technion Professor emeritus Yoram Palti.

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MORE ACCURATE RADIOLOGY 

Co-Founder and CTO Yitzi Pfeffer and Aviel Blumenfeld, CEO, at IMedis Medical.

Israeli medical system company IMedis has received approval from the EU for its AI-based quality control system for radiology departments. The system can accurately identify findings that would require follow-ups and may have been missed by the radiologist in an initial reading, and help discover early findings without symptoms that could lead to cancer. IMedis Medical CEO and Co-founder Aviel Blumenfeld is a Technion alumnus.

 

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CANCER SENSING TOILET SEAT

An early screening unit that uses AI , computer vision algorithms, and multispectral optical sensors might one day help prevent many of the 700,000 yearly global deaths from colorectal cancer. The OutSense IoT sensor clips onto the toilet and operates automatically, non-invasively, discreetly and without active user intervention. The sensor “knows” who is sitting on the toilet based on the closest smartphone, as well as other ways to identify the user. Real-time analysis is conducted in the cloud, and notification of any abnormal results is sent immediately to the smartphone of the user or caregiver. OutSense Chairman and Founder Ishay Attar is a Technion alumnus.

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BETTER BIOPSIES

Limaca Medical says it has developed a medical device to perform endoscopic ultrasound-guided biopsies that promise 'ten times' greater procedural efficiency (Courtesy)

Israeli startup Limaca Medical has developed a medical device to perform endoscopic ultrasound (EUS)-guided biopsies that promise “ten times” greater procedural efficiency with less trauma than the commonly used endoscope. Limaca’s Precision biopsy device gives surgeons more control and enables them to precisely reach the area of interest in the organ and offers a vast improvement over current EUS methods. Limaca Founder and Medical Director Iyad Khamasi is an assistant professor at the Technion, and the director of the Invasive Endoscopy Unit at the Rambam Health Care Campus.

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mRNA Formulates Its Instructions to Ribosomes

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Dynamic, Sophisticated, and Environmentally Sensitive:

This is How mRNA Formulates Its Instructions to Ribosomes

Yoav Arava and Ofri Levi

Technion researchers have discovered a new mechanism in the control of protein synthesis by ribosomes: an enzyme that edits mRNA and regulates its activity according to the organism’s needs. Their recent article describes similar gene editing processes to those used by Pfizer and Moderna in developing the new mRNA vaccines

Technion researchers have discovered an unknown mechanism that controls protein synthesis in the cell. The mechanism uses chemical modifications on mRNA to influence the rate of protein production by the ribosome, the cellular protein machine. The researchers, Professor Yoav Arava and doctoral student Ofri Levi of the Faculty of Biology, published news of the discovery in Nucleic Acids Research.

Gene expression control is responsible for translating the genetic code (written in DNA) into proteins that are adapted for their purpose in the specific tissue, taking changing environmental conditions into account. “If DNA is the cookbook,” said Ofri Levi, “then the chef is the ribosome – the cellular protein machine. The main mediator in the process is the mRNA molecule, which carries the recipe from the DNA to the ribosome. The right interaction between mRNA and the ribosome is vital to the normalcy and quality of the proteins.”

For some years, it has been known that mRNA does not carry the instructions from DNA in their original form, but undergoes numerous modifications on the way. These chemical changes recently made headlines in the context of the COVID-19 vaccines; the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are based on the introduction of synthetic mRNA into the body to create immunological proteins inside our cells. However, since the cell treats mRNA as a foreign body, it tends to attack it, and the rapid mRNA breakdown does not leave it with enough time to manufacture the essential proteins.

To overcome this challenge, the two companies integrated modifications that mimic natural changes that occur in the body into their mRNA molecules. These modifications indeed enable the synthetic molecule to survive and to work long enough to create the protein from the virus.

According to Prof. Arava, “The connection between mRNA and the production of proteins is a process that has occupied us for some years, and we are focusing on the effect of mRNA on building the proteins and on their stability. We are trying to understand the ‘conversation’ in which mRNA tells the ribosome what to manufacture for the cell. We are conducting the basic research on Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a budding yeast that we know as baking or brewing yeast, and we have a solid basis to assume that what happens in the yeast is highly relevant to what happens in the human body.”

In a previous article published in PLoS Biology in July 2019, Mr. Levi and Prof. Arava presented a new role for certain enzymes prevalent in all kingdoms of life. The researchers discovered that these enzymes serve as significant control elements in protein production – a role that was unknown before the article was published. To perform this function, these enzymes bind to the mRNA and regulate the quantity of mRNA molecules available to the ribosome.

In the present study, Mr. Levi and Prof. Arava thoroughly explored the question as to how those enzymes identify mRNA among the medley of cellular components. They discovered that the answer lies in a unique chemical modification occurring in mRNA. This modification, known as pseudouridine, is created in various locations on mRNA; control elements identify the change and time ribosome activity accordingly.

To prove the importance of this modification, the researchers developed a method based on CRISPR/Cas9, which enabled them to “surgically” remove the psuedouridine without causing any other damage to the cells. Indeed, in the absence of psuedouridine, control of protein production was lost. According to Mr. Levi, “Like many scientists in the world, we too owe a huge thank you to Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier and Professor Jennifer Doudna for the dramatic breakthrough they achieved in the development of the CRISPR/Cas9 technology.”

Profs. Charpentier and Doudna were awarded the Technion Harvey Prize on November 3, 2019, and one year later, on December 10, 2020, they received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of the revolutionary technology for editing, repairing, and rewriting DNA. Thanks to this technology, Mr. Levi said, “we have been able to make progress in our research with unprecedented speed and accuracy.”

The Technion researchers estimate this is an evolutionarily conserved mechanism that exists across the animal kingdom. Since the mechanism is sensitive to environmental changes, it provides mRNA molecules with instructions tailored to environmental conditions, thus directing the ribosomes to optimal protein production.

As mentioned, one of the most important tasks faced by Pfizer and Moderna was to improve the activity of artificial mRNA in the human body, so they introduced a modification to the “immunological” mRNA that is very similar to pseudouridine. “We don’t yet know if the control elements we discovered are also able to detect the modification in synthetic mRNA,” said Prof. Arava. “If they are, this may open up further possibilities to improve mRNA activity and produce larger quantities of proteins.”

Beyond the present research and its implications, said Prof. Arava, “our discovery illustrates the importance of basic research in the development of sophisticated medical treatments and innovative vaccines. The public and the media are mainly hungry for publications about developments and applied science, but without a strong, broad infrastructure of basic science – in directions in which the applied horizon is not always clear – we would not witness such dramatic breakthroughs in diagnosis, treatment, and vaccines, as well as in areas of life outside the world of medicine.”

The research was funded by the Israel Science Foundation (ISF). Ofri Levi is the winner of the Jacobs Scholarship for Outstanding Students.

Click here for the complete article in Nucleic Acids Research.

Get Close to Nature

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Prof. Assaf Shwartz

To Touch and to Smell – a Nature Experience that Creates Happiness

 A study by three Technion researchers has revealed that simply spending time in nature isn’t enough: to be happy, we need to get really close to it, to touch it and smell it. And surprise: there’s no need to turn off your phone

During the first COVID-19-related lockdown, everyone baked sourdough bread. In the second lockdown, the trend was home gardening, and social media was flooded with a plethora of photos of pot plants and close-ups of colorful succulents. According to researchers, the change in trend can be explained by the fact that the second lockdown found Israelis in lower spirits that even carbs would find it hard to lift. The forced stay that kept entire families indoors turned even the brightest, most beautiful homes into traps that created a sense of being closed in, and their residents tried to mitigate its impacts with a little greenery on which they could feast their eyes and spirits.

Numerous research studies have supported this intuitive choice, demonstrating the importance of nature and green spaces to people’s emotional and physical wellbeing, but a new study has shown that “feasting one’s eyes on greenery” is merely the tip of the iceberg. In order to benefit emotional wellbeing, humans must get close up and physically touch natural elements. In a research study published in Conservation Biology, Technion researchers found that interaction with nature alone is not enough. In order for tangible benefits to be derived, they found it is important that planners design green spaces that positive and close interaction with nature. The effect of interaction of this kind occurs in two stages, In the first, “cues of close psychological distance,” such as smelling and touching natural elements, increase the state of nature relatedness. This state in turn intensifies the pleasure derived by participants.

The researchers, Professor Assaf Shwartz and Dr. Agathe Colléony of the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning, and Dr. Liat Levontin of the William Davidson Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management, explain that closeness to nature improves wellbeing more than passive exposure or simply looking at the green landscape. Based on a survey of 1,023 visitors at Ramat Hanadiv Nature Park, they found that the closer the interaction with nature (for example, interaction that included touching natural elements or smelling flowers), the more the positive affect of visitors was enhanced following the visit to the nature reserve, compared to other visitors who experienced nature from a greater distance (for example, by simply taking a walk).

“Our research has shown that people who have an emotional affinity for nature are generally happier and derive greater benefit from visits to green spaces or nature reserves,” explained Prof. Shwartz.

Following these findings, the researchers conducted an experiment among 303 Technion students. All participants spent half an hour outdoors on campus, with each assigned one of nine different cues-to-experience to perform while walking. These included smelling flowers, taking photographs of nature, touching natural elements, or turning off their phones. The findings showed that participants assigned cues of close psychological distance from nature (smelling and touching natural elements) indeed felt closer to nature and felt better after the walk than the control group (with no cues). Contrary to the prevailing opinion that it is important to experience nature undisturbed, participants who were asked to turn off their phones during the walk interacted less with nature, and reported both an increase in their negative feelings and a decrease in positive feelings after the walk was recorded. According to Dr. Levontin, “Turning off the phone may possibly cause people to think about it more and lead to FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and does not enable significant interaction with nature.”

“People today are increasingly alienated from nature, and this has negative implications on their health and wellbeing and on the importance they attribute to the world of nature,” said Prof. Shwartz. “It’s important to plan green spaces that enable significant interactions with nature to improve our affinity to nature and emotional wellbeing.”

“I think we all felt it in the recent lockdowns,” added Dr. Levontin. “But it’s possible that as a result of our growing alienation from nature, planning green spaces is not enough to create a significant nature experience and contribute to quality of life. So thought must be given to how to encourage people to go outdoors and enhance their nature experience.”

“This is precisely where our research comes in,” Prof. Shwartz explained. “In the experiment, we demonstrated that with the help of minor cues, which we called “cues-to-experience,” people can be brought closer to nature. We also found that it is possible to enhance the nature experience among visitors, as well as its positive effect after the visit. Even smartphones can be used to create meaningful nature experiences for all of us in parks, gardens, and nature reserves. At the same time, it is important to make sure to also protect biodiversity and not to encourage interaction that is liable to be harmful to nature, such as picking flowers. Landscape architects and environmental planners need to think about solutions that will encourage the creation of interactions with nature, whose negative impact on biodiversity is minimal and positive impact is strong.”

The paper in Conservation Biology can be accessed here