Posted by: Academy of Achievement | 01/05/2012

Sarel Fleishman, Ph.D., Class of 2002
Assistant Professor, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel

The 2002 International Achievement Summit in Dublin, Ireland, was an extraordinary experience for me. At the time, I was starting my graduate work in Biochemistry and the opportunity to personally meet such accomplished people, as well as budding academics and public servants, was truly inspiring. I vividly remember how, at the close of the Summit, Catherine Reynolds encouraged each of the international students to “go back to their countries of origin, and make a difference.” Having met, listened, and interacted that week with people, who really have made a huge difference, such as Henry Kissinger, James Watson and David Trimble, as well as with gifted students, who have undoubtedly been incredibly successful since the Summit, endowed Mrs. Reynolds’s statement with profound meaning.

My graduate work centered on computational modeling of membrane proteins. The goal of my research was to model the molecular structures of membrane proteins using the limited available information and to explain how they function, most crucially in disease. Based on these molecular structures I suggested models for the activity of these proteins and for their involvement in diseases such as certain types of cancer. Exciting recent results by other labs have shown that some of the central aspects of these models are indeed validated by experiment. For these studies I had been awarded the Science Magazine and GE Healthcare Award for Young Life Scientists.

When I completed my graduate work I had become attracted to the field of de novo protein design. In de novo design new proteins that don’t exist in nature are generated with the aid of computational methods to carry out a desired molecular task. In principle, being able to design proteins for any required task could have huge implications for our ability to study the molecular aspects of a wide range of life processes, and crucially to control many forms of disease. During my postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington, I developed the first method to reproducibly¬†generate proteins that bind a target molecular surface, and used this method to design proteins that bind an influenza surface protein at a site that is crucial for viral infectivity (see illustration). This site is so important that it is virtually fully conserved among viral strains as different as Spanish, avian, and Asian flu (H1N1, H5N1, and H2N2, respectively), some of the most virulent and threatening viruses known to man. These proteins are now being investigated as potential therapeutics and diagnostics against a wide range of flu strains.

I have very recently taken a position as Assistant Professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. One of the focuses of my newly formed research group is studying the features that endow immune system antibodies with the amazing ability to recognize and often disable a bewildering range of pathogens. We are hoping that by understanding the design principles that underpin these capabilities, we will be able to design new proteins that could one day be used to diagnose and fight disease.

At the end of the 2002 Summit, my girlfriend Dana joined me and we took the opportunity to hike in the beautiful Irish countryside at the exciting time when Ireland was playing in the World Cup. Dana and I have since married, and we now live in Rehovot, Israel, with our three young children, Ariel, Aviv, and Myron, and our dog Tuka.

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