The Start-Up Nation Seeks COVID-19 Solutions

By | May 14, 2020
Coronavirus, Israel

One inventor compared their work to MacGyver, the hero of the 1980s TV series who found the most unconventional solutions to problems and saved people using everything from BIC pens to chewing gum.

Thousands of research teams and start-up groups throughout the world are attempting to find solutions to the COVID-19 virus. By harnessing the energies that produced the so-called “Start-Up Nation”—cross-team multidisciplinary approaches, willing to work intensely and collaboratively, ingenuity, and a good dose of unhumble chutzpah—Israel has been able to achieve important breakthroughs. 

Of course, the search for a vaccine is the most important of all of these efforts, although all agree that production of an effective vaccine is, at the earliest, well over a year away. Some 1,000 research groups throughout the world are working on this, and Israel has already produced some initial, promising findings.

In early May, media in Israel and abroad reported that researchers working in various labs in Israel had achieved some success in isolating antibodies that neutralize the coronavirus’ ability to infect human cells.

According to the Times of Israel, Israel’s Biological Research Institute (IBRI) confirmed that it has isolated an antibody it believes could be used to develop treatments against the COVID-19 virus. The Defense Ministry-run laboratory said it was the first in the world to reach three major milestones: finding an antibody that destroys the virus; that targets this coronavirus specifically; and that is monoclonal, lacking additional proteins that can cause complications for patients.

The “monoclonal neutralizing antibody… can neutralize” the disease-causing coronavirus inside carriers’ bodies, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement. This development would not be useful in the creation of a vaccine, but would rather be a move toward a drug treatment for those who have already contracted the disease. The antibody has also not yet been tested outside of a Petri dish.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University have isolated antibodies from the blood of recovered patients. Two of these antibodies have effectively neutralized the protein used by the virus to attach itself to human cells. The coronavirus uses a spike to link up with a human cell’s receptors, allowing it to insert its genetic material into that cell. The team now plans to check the antibodies’ effectiveness in a live virus through animal testing. If effective, the antibodies could be used to help the elderly or people with underlying conditions overcome the virus. 

Taking plasma from recovered coronavirus patients to create a concentrate of antibodies, Israel’s national blood service is attempting to develop an antibody injection, The Times of Israel reports. This concentrate, Eilat Shinar, director of Magen David Adom blood services, is quoted as saying, will be injected intravenously. This is not the same as a vaccine, which prompts the body to create antibodies to fight viruses or bacteria. Instead, the “passive” injection will contain preformed antibodies. And while anticipated coronavirus vaccines are expected to give relatively full protection, Shinar said there are no assurances regarding the extent to which the globulin injection will work. It is a technique that was used during other health crises, including Ebola and SARS, but there is limited data on its efficacy.

According to a report in Haaretz, researchers at the Weizmann Institute found out what differentiates the actions of the immune system in serious COVID-19 cases as opposed to those only mildly affected. The study was done in collaboration with researchers from China and was recently published in the prestigious journal Cell. The researchers examined the differences between those who were seriously ill and lightly ill, basing their analysis partly on state-of-the-art genomic technologies, including single-cell genomics. 

This technology enables precise mapping of cellular activity at a given moment through the genetic sequencing of the entire viral RNA. By obtaining a picture of the cell at a given moment, researchers can see which cells and genes are activated and which cells are silenced, thus learning about changes in intercellular communication and about cells that are activated by the virus in areas where it is active.

In mid-March, as the virus spread throughout the world, Assuta Ashdod Hospital, Rafael Advanced Technology and the Weizmann Institute of Science launched Sprint COVID-19, an open-source initiative that brought together hundreds of people from the technological, military and medical realms, working in teams to devise agile new inventions intended to solve various challenges posed by the pandemic. 

They thought of their work as a sprint—that is, a quick, intensive effort, in contrast to a marathon. The project, according to its website, was based on two rounds, each lasting three weeks, with the aim of bringing the inventions created into the hospitals, at least in prototype form, by the end of the “sprint.”

In each round, Sprint COVID-19 organizers presented five challenges, and, creating a spirit of “friendly competition,” created two or three teams for each challenge. The health ministry aided the teams to ensure they met the Declaration of Helsinki (the statement of ethical principles for medical research involving human subjects).

As Israel was in lockdown due to the virus, the entire operation took place in cyberspace, often 24/7. Not all of the team members even knew each other personally. 

By the end of the first round, teams had developed, among their other achievements:

A simple, pipe-based respirator system using inexpensive and disposable parts that also includes a patient breathing-monitoring system. Since coronavirus disease in all its forms is highly contagious, a disposable generator can be destroyed and a new ventilator used on the next patient, thus minimizing infections. Prototypes have already been assembled and the units will be introduced soon. 

-A smartphone app to measure key vital signs and combine them with answers to a questionnaire in order to give an accurate recommendation to an individual as to whether she or he should seek medical care for possible coronavirus that, inventors believe, will be equal or superior to current physiological tests and much more scalable and cost-efficientt;

-“Robotipuli” (which translates as robot caretaker), which has been programmed to perform many of the basic tasks usually carried out by medical professionals. Robotipuli can currently serve food, clear garbage, dispense medicines, “visit” patients, and accompany and assist a staff member (instead of a human assistant). Using Robotipuli would allow the exposure of medical staff to contaminated patients to be drastically reduced.

-An active information transfer system, using video-call technology, which can provide families of critically-ill patients with regular updates and explanations about the patient’s health status. 

-Helmut-like masks, which are already in clinical trial, to protect medical staff while enabling them to work efficiently.

Other companies and organizations have developed additional diagnostic and treatment tools. According to a press release, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) has converted a radar and electro-optical sensor system, used to peer across Israel’s borders and detect enemies, into a device that can take patients’ vital signs without touching them. According to Amira Sharon, IAI vice-president, they collaborated with the defense and healthcare ministries and with the Israeli Corporations Authority to understand the healthcare needs in the field. This cooperation has resulted in a range of technological solutions, among them the lightweight, easy to use Sparrow Ventilator, which provides invasive or non-invasive ventilation to children or adults. 

IAI engineers have also found a way to sanitize medical rooms using ultraviolet light technology. When fully developed, the hands-free sanitation systems will be able to disinfect a room within 30 minutes.

Working with the Sheba Medical Center, Vocalis Health, a biotech group, has deployed a state-of-the-art Artificial Intelligence method and technique to correlate the voice with the symptoms of COVID-19. This will enable an alert about early symptoms and monitoring through the use of a smartphone.

Also enlisting the human senses, Nanoscent, which creates platforms for scent recognition used, for example, by industrial plants to prevent leaks that could cause environmental disasters, is training its artificial intelligence to detect the distinct smell found in the noses of COVID-19 patients.

TeraGroup has developed a form of a breathalyzer, which, similar to the breathalyzer used to detect drivers under the influence, will allow for quick and cheap screenings at, for example, airports and markets. Although the device is not intended to make a positive diagnosis, it will flag those people who should get tested while letting others pass.

AnyVision, a surveillance and facial recognition company with deep-learning technology that scans faces at military checkpoints, has patched into surveillance cameras in hospital public areas, setting off alarms when someone enters a department without wearing a mask.

Other groups have developed masks. Sonovia, which sped up efforts to manufacture masks using its antipathogen fabric at the start of the coronavirus crisis in Israel, already has launched commercial sales. The company’s technology is based on a lab-scale sonochemical process that was developed at Bar-Ilan University. Sonovia started manufacturing its product in March at a plant near Nahariya when Israel had only 200 patients and has sold 30,000 masks. Most of its clients are distributors and nonprofits in the United States.

And finally, Israeli students from Dimona, a small town in the Negev desert, have developed a transparent mask, so that deaf people can read lips. It may not be a high-tech device, but it allows everyone to see a smile.

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