Biotech partnership aids Parkinson’s patients

A long-term friendship between a Catholic Israeli Arab electrical engineer and a Jewish Israeli medical neurobiology professor is helping to significantly improve the lives of people with advance stage Parkinson’s disease. Along the way, their cooperation is a model for what can happen when people relate to one another as colleagues and friends, rather than political advisories based simply on their ethnic or religious backgrounds.

While it may seem trivial, in a part of the world where years of suspicions and antagonism against the other is often ingrained, such a working relationship of equals — which has since turned into a personal friendship — can’t be taken for granted.

Engineer Imad Younis, a Catholic Arab-Israeli, and Dr. Hagai Bergman, a Jewish Israeli, met while both were at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa some 30 years ago. Younis worked as an electrical engineer building equipment to the specific needs of scientific researchers and Bergman was completing his M.D. and doctor of science in biophysics in 1984.

Now Younis, 56, is co-owner with his wife, Reem, of the medical high-tech company Alpha Omega, based in Nazareth, and Bergman, 65, is a medical neurobiology professor and researcher at the Hebrew University School of Medicine in Jerusalem, and the two are collaborating in the creation of a way to monitor the implantation of a brain pacemaker, or Deep Brain Stimulator (DBS), into the brains of Parkinson’s patients who are no longer responding to pharmacological treatment.

Opportunities in the field

Finding work in the tight-knit high-tech sector in Israel as an Arab engineer was not easy, Younis noted, and in 1993 he and Reem took the plunge and were the first Arabs in Israel to break into the high-tech scene by starting their own company. Today their team of 65 Arab and Jewish employees — including their oldest daughter, Dima, 26 — in offices in Nazareth, Germany and the United States provide neuroscience medical and research equipment to some 500 domestic and international customers.

Though it is easier today for young Israeli Arabs to find employment at high-tech companies because of the increasing number of international companies in Israel, they still only represent 3 percent of high-tech workers, despite being 21 percent of the Israeli population and 4 percent of the computer science, science and engineering students at Israeli universities, Reem noted.

“Young Arab students don’t feel they will find employment even after they graduate,” she said, noting that most of Israel’s high-tech industry is concentrated in the center of the country around Tel Aviv. So it was important for her and her husband to base their business in their hometown of Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab town.

In part, Imad credits his Catholic education at the Salesian school in Nazareth with giving him the tools and values to face challenges, as well as exposing him to people of different backgrounds and teaching him the value of diversity.

“(Reem and I) started out on a very simplistic mission: We wanted to bring high-tech to the Arab community,” said Imad. “We can affect our community, and we can affect our employees. We want Alpha Omega to be welcoming to all of Israel’s diversity. We want to have an ultra-Orthodox Jew — there is none working here yet — working next to a religious Muslim. We are working on a mission ... people from different backgrounds can come here. Everyone is welcome here. It is how we measure our success. ... We want to make a better place for everyone to live in. We want to leave a better place for our children than the one we have now. That’s our impact on the Middle East.”

Pioneering work

Several times a month, Bergman drives up to their offices from Jerusalem to discuss their joint work.

“Every Christmas (my family and I) go to Nazareth, and my children grew up with Imad as their Papa Noel,” Bergman said of his relationship with the couple.

“They are very good at what they do,” he said. “They are the teachers in this area in terms of knowledge and technology. They are leaders in this field. It is very comfortable to work with them.”

In the early 1990s Bergman helped pioneer the identification of the best target for the DBS medical procedure in which a brain pacemaker, or electrode, implanted in the subthalamic nucleus of the brain sends electrical impulses through DBS to the basal ganglia part of the brain. The first surgeon to work with Bergman was a French doctor of Algerian origin, Dr. Alim Louis Benabid. This treatment has been proven to dramatically improve the function and quality of life of the patients. This procedure has become the main therapy in Parkinson’s patients in the advanced stages of the disease, as well as a therapy of other conditions.

The procedure improves the quality of life for patients for some 10-15 years and is already available under national health plans in Israel, Japan, Western Europe and North America. It’s estimated that more than 150,000 DBS procedures have been already done all over the world.

Fruits of the partnership

But while implanting an electrode in the brain to help Parkinson’s Disease patients is not new, until recently surgeons have relied only on MRI and CT imaging to reach their small and distant target. Using these methods, however, the implantation may miss its target in 10 percent of patients.

With the electrophysiological monitor devised by Bergman and Alpha Omega, however, surgeons will be better able to more efficiently reach their target by navigating and analyzing the implant procedure in real time. The procedure has been tested in hundreds of cases in Jerusalem, three centers in the United States and one in Hamburg, Germany.

“It is used for navigation within the brain, like a GPS inside the brain,” Imad said. “We are working to automate the navigation system, which tells the doctors where the target location is. I have been working with Hagai since he did his Ph.D. in 1985. He is a very well-known scientist all over the world. Now we are more like research collaborators. We are very excited, and we are going to change the way people do the implantation procedure. It will simplify and shorten the procedure time, and it will make it much more effective.”

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The results are very promising, said Bergman, and the system is now under FDA review for final approval.

“We think we are doing something important, and we think it is our responsibility,” said Imad. “We don’t have any influence on the big (picture), but one thing we can do is do our job well, and this is our contribution to our community. So we try to do the best research we can. We bring people together and we are models of what can be done.”

“Working with Imad and Reem is a great thing. I think it is a model for all of us of how the Middle East could be if we were not so busy with war and other such things,” said Bergman.

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.