For 86-year-old Prof. Ruth Arnon, nothing compares to waking up in the morning and going to work in the laboratory.
When it comes to being excited by experiments, age is simply not a factor for the world-renowned Weizmann Institute of Science biochemist and co-creator of multiple sclerosis drug Copaxone.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1933, Arnon’s academic background was in biochemistry, but she worked her entire career to advance a chemical approach to immunology.
She currently heads the scientific advisory board of BiondVax Pharmaceuticals, a Jerusalem-based company developing an unprecedented, universal influenza vaccine based on decades of her research at the Weizmann Institute. In 2010, Arnon become the first female president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and the Humanities.
“There is nothing more exciting than planning an experiment and getting the results,” Arnon told The Jerusalem Post. “If you get the results you wanted, it’s extremely exciting. If you didn’t expect the results, it can sometimes be even more exciting.”
Israeli pharmaceutical giant Teva received FDA approval for Copaxone in 1996, a prime example of unexpected but greatly exciting results. The drug is indicated for reducing the frequency of relapses among multiple sclerosis.
“Already in my PhD, I studied synthetic polymers in order to look at their universal properties and to see whether there is a correlation between the structure of the protein-like polymers and immunological properties,” Arnon said.
Her studies subsequently led to the development of a synthetic polymer of amino acids, similar to a protein involved in multiple sclerosis. Arnon and her co-researchers originally intended to develop a polymer to mimic the disease in animals, but they found the polymer did not induce a disease. On the contrary, it inhibited the disease.
“With these results, we made a switch in our minds and studied the properties of this polymer as an inhibitor,” she said. “Eventually, it led to Copaxone.”
Today, BiondVax is building on Arnon’s immunology research and making encouraging strides toward developing a universal, multi-season and multi-strain flu vaccine that has eluded researchers for decades. Approval of the vaccine will represent a major transformation in the field of influenza immunology, which currently operates according to instructions issued by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The company is now in the final stage of human clinical trials, with studies to date showing the vaccine to be safe, well-tolerated and immunogenic to a broad range of influenza strains. Results are expected at the end of the current flu season.
“We looked at the structure of several proteins of influenza, and we focused on regions in the proteins that do not change,” Arnon said. “Assuming that we immunize with a synthetic molecule containing the regions conserved among many strains of influenza, then this material will be able to provide immunity against many strains of the virus.”
Recognizing her distinguished career and contributions to medical research, Arnon was awarded the 2020 OurCrowd Maimonides Award for Lifetime Achievement in Science, Leadership and Menschlichkeit at the OurCrowd Global Investor Summit on Thursday. She was welcomed with a standing ovation by thousands of attendees.
Presenting the award, OurCrowd founder and CEO Jon Medved paid tribute to Arnon, saying: “Countless people owe her their lives and their quality of life to her hard work and innovation.”
In addition to roles at the Weizmann Institute and the Israel Academy, Arnon has served in many senior national and international positions, including president of the European Federation of Immunological Societies, secretary-general of the International Union of Immunological Societies and on the steering committee of the WHO Task Force on Immunological Methods for Fertility Control.
Regarding aspiring scientists, Arnon told the Post her most important advice was to “do what you love most and work on that.”
“Whatever you love, you will do with excitement, and it will give you pleasure. Don’t try to force yourself to do things that you don’t like,” she said. “I think scientists are fortunate in the sense that they can really follow their philosophy and do what they love most.”