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 Skip Navigation LinksA Perfect Partnership  
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“Our $1 million gift to the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation was among the very first in our Israel portfolio,” said Jim O’Sullivan, Senior Advisor for the Israel Program at the Helmsley Charitable Trust. That was in 2012 when The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust had just begun to focus on grant making in Israel. “We were delighted to find an organization like the BSF who were dedicated to bringing together Israeli and American scientists in joint research programs,” O’Sullivan continued. “Now at the end of the three year grant period, we have been very pleased with all aspects of our partnership.”

The Helmsley Charitable Trust supported five excellent collaborative research projects within the field of life sciences. Limited BSF funds often meant that exceptional grants were left on the table, frustrating scientists from both countries. The gift from the Trust enabled the BSF to expand the total number of grants it awarded within its 2011 - 2012 funding cycle from 102 to 107.

Yael Mandel-Gutfreund, Ph.D., left, on the screen live from Technion in Haifa, Israel, and Manuel Ares, Jr., Ph.D., right, from University of California at Santa Cruz, live 10 time zones apart but work together via videoconference on their project about RNA binding proteins. All genes (made of DNA) produce a chemical called RNA (a cousin of DNA). The RNA carries out the function of the gene under the guidance and control of RNA-binding proteins. In their Helmsley Charitable Trust funded work, the Mandel-Gutfreund and Ares labs work together to create computer programs that predict where each of many known RNA-binding proteins bind to any given RNA and this information is critical for understanding how RNA-binding proteins control the function of genes.

“With the Helmsley Charitable Trust’s interest in the life sciences,” continued O’Sullivan, “we have followed the progress of the scientists in these research projects. The BSF offered a robust peer review process through which we had confidence that we were funding scientific ventures of the highest quality. In addition, because of their strong financial procedures, we were comforted to know that our funds were well managed and properly distributed to the laboratories.”

The Trust’s funding underwrote work in the areas of neurobiology, genetics, biochemistry, and plant sciences. Of the 10 scientists, they represented Ben Gurion University, Hebrew University, the Technion, and Tel Aviv University in Israel and Stanford, University of California Santa Cruz, University of Delaware, and the University of Pittsburgh in the United States.

Michal Hershfinkel, Ph.D., from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Elias Aizenman, Ph.D., from University of Pittsburgh are working on ways to prevent seizures. Zinc is packed within sections of neurons, and is released during neuronal activity. They have identified a protein in neurons, called a zinc sensing receptor or mZnR. In their Helmsley Charitable Trust funded project, they show that mZnR up-regulates chloride transport during a single seizure event. Such a process may provide a self-inhibitory drive during the onset of excessive neuronal activity and thus stop the development of seizures. Several studies have linked brain zinc deficiency to enhanced susceptibility to seizures. Their work might provide a novel pharmaceutical target for regulating neuronal excitability during seizures.

Today, the Helmsley Charitable Trust has redefined its support in Israel. Said O’Sullivan, “We now strive to help Israel maintain a vibrant economy for years to come. We work directly with elite Universities in Israel to fund their top identified strategic needs. Our major focus is in science, technology and medical research and our staff is engaged and initiating new grants by invitation.”

Of his relationship with the BSF, its staff and funded scientists O’Sullivan said, “I can’t stress enough that their programs for funding collaborative research are effective. With our grant, they delivered on all that they had promised.”

Tatyana Polenova, Ph.D., from the University of Delaware and Amir Goldbourt, Ph.D. (pictured) from Tel Aviv University use their Helmsley Charitable Trust funds to study charged metal atoms, called metal ions. These proteins are called metalloenzymes and they are involved in all aspects of cellular life by facilitating many important chemical reactions. In some cases, metal ions facilitate reactions, such as in the case of vanadium-containing enzymes studied by the Polenova group, and are important in the design of new materials for biotechnology applications. In other cases metal-activated enzymes are blocked by a drug containing a different metal, such as the lithium drug that is used for the treatment of bipolar disorder. Studying its environment can illuminate how it works and aid in designing new alternative drugs free of lithium's numerous side effects.

Learn more about the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust here
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