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Prof. Zelig Eshhar is hoping his therapy will save lives all over the world

Gilead Buys Kite

Behind the sale to the pharmaceutical giant is the man in Israel who had a novel idea for treating cancer, and the American doctors who tried it

Prof. Zelig Eshhar is hoping his therapy will save lives all over the world

Prof. Zelig Eshhar is hoping his therapy will save lives all over the world

On the face of it, the big story concerns one US-based pharmaceutical company buying another —  for a pile of money. But the breakthrough technology being developed at Kite is based on years of thorough, painstaking research at the Weizmann Institute of Science. And it will save lives all over the world.

International collaboration played a role in the story in several ways. Prof. Zelig Eshhar, who sits on Kite’s advisory board, began to work out how to get the body’s own immune cells to target cancer back in the 1980s, when working at the National Institutes of Health. He continued this research for decades in his lab at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel.

It was doctors in Pennsylvania who decided to adopt the idea, which they called CAR T-cell therapy. A patient’s immune cells are removed, genetically engineered to attack the cancer and re-injected into the patient. The initial results — the complete remission in three leukemia patients who had had no hope of survival — rocked the world of cancer research.

In March 2013, investigators at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center published the results from another clinical trial involving adults with chemotherapy-resistant acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL. In stunning results, there was a 100 percent success rate: all five of the patients who received genetically modified versions of their own T cells achieved complete remission. Most recently, University of Pennsylvania researchers conducted a trial in which cancers in 27 out of 29 patients went into remission or disappeared altogether.  All the patients in this study were considered “end stage”— people with advanced cancers who have exhausted all other treatment options.

Cancer immunotherapy is undergoing clinical trials for many types of cancer, and research at the Weizmann Institute and several Israeli hospitals is contributing to further improving the therapy.



Israel BDS – building dialogue through science – aims to promote the kind of international collaboration that can lead to true understanding between people. Israel BDS stands for the free and open exchange of ideas among scientists everywhere. By reporting on the benefits of Israeli-international scientific research and the web of connections that these scientists create around the world, Israel BDS takes a vibrant approach to highlighting the global necessity of continued international scientific collaboration.