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“A new era of personalised medicine is approaching”

Special Correspondent
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We are exiting an era where approach to treatment of many diseases is “one size fits all”: Israeli Nobel laureate

Israeli Nobel laureate Aaron Ciechanover delivering a lecture on “Personalised medicine” at BITS Pilani on Thursday.— Photo: Rohit Jain Paras
Israeli Nobel laureate Aaron Ciechanover delivering a lecture on “Personalised medicine” at BITS Pilani on Thursday.— Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

Nobel laureate and noted medical scientist from Israel Aaron Ciechanover on Thursday called for a change in the approach to scientific research and development and in education, where he said an interdisciplinary approach will very soon domineer and replace the traditional and discipline-oriented methods. This trend is most visible in medical science, where a new era of “personalised medicine” is approaching.

Prof. Ciechanover is at the Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS) at Pilani in Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan for three days. He visited laboratories, interacted with students and faculty members and delivered a lecture devoted to the theme “The revolution of personalised medicine — Are we going to cure all diseases and at what price?”

The 2004 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry said the world is exiting an era where the approach to treatment of many diseases is “one size fits all” and entering a new one of personalised medicine, where medical scientists will tailor the treatment according to the patient’s molecular and mutational profile. In the new era, unlike the previous age, the understanding of the mechanism will drive the development of new drugs.

“This era will be characterised initially by the development of technologies where sequencing and data processing of individual genomes will be fast [in a few hours] and cheap [less than $1,000], by identification and characterisation of new disease-specific molecular markers and drug targets, and by design of novel, mechanism-based drugs to modulate the activities of these targets,” he said.

Over 1,500 faculty members and students attended the lecture at the institute auditorium. Prof. Ciechanover’s visit to BITS Pilani was arranged by Honeywell International as a part of Honeywell Initiative for Science and Engineering (HISE).

Speaking about the evolution of drugs, Prof Ciechanover, who shared the Nobel Prize with Avram Hershko and Irwin Rose for the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation, said many important drugs such as penicillin, aspirin, or digitalis, were discovered by serendipity — some by curious researchers who accidentally noted a “strange” phenomenon and some by isolation of active ingredients from plants known to have a specific therapeutic effect.

Other major drugs like stalins were discovered using more advanced technologies, such as targeted screening of large chemical libraries. In all these cases, the mechanisms of action of the drugs were largely unknown at the time of discovery and were unravelled later, said Prof. Ciechanover.

“With the realisation that patients with apparently similar diseases at diagnosis respond differently, we have begun to understand that the molecular basis of what we thought is the same disease entity, is different,” he said. Thus, cancers such as breast or prostate cancer appear to be sub-divided to similar classes according to their molecular characteristics, and the treatment methods also will vary from patient to patient.

Laying emphasis on a change in the approach to scientific research and development, Prof. Ciechanover said there was need for an interdisciplinary approach, as the entry to the new era will also be accompanied by complicated bioethical problems, where detailed genetic information of large populations in developed countries would be now available and protection of privacy would become a major problem to health authorities.

As one of Israel’s first Nobel laureates in science, Prof. Ciechanover is honoured as a scholar playing a central role in the history of Israel and in the history of the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology situated in Haifa. In 2005, he was voted the co-31st-greatest Israeli of all time in a poll by the Israeli news website Ynet, to determine whom the general public considered the 200 greatest Israelis.

Prof. Ciechanover is at present a Distinguished Research Professor in the Ruth and Bruce Rappaport Faculty of Medicine and Research Institute at the Technion. He is also a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences & Humanities, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

BITS Pilani Vice-Chancellor B. N. Jain said Prof. Ciechanover’s visit at this juncture was significant since the institute was in the midst of projects in order to become a research-led university. “Our faculty members in the area of sciences, pharmacy and biotechnology look forward to interacting with Prof. Ciechanover as they are actively involved in research in several areas of nano-biotechnology, drug discovery and delivery, and cell biology and cancer, besides studies on malaria and diabetes.”

The students have also sought the Nobel laureate’s views on science and research and their impact on the quality of human life.


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