This Religious Israeli Scientist’s Surprising Test Subject For A Covid-19 Vaccine

Dr. Avi Schroeder has never had a bite of shrimp in his life, but he sure spends a lot of time with them in his search for a vaccine for Covid-19! Schroeder is an Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology where he heads the Laboratory for Targeted Drug Delivery and Personalized Medicine Technologies. The recipient of more than 30 national and international awards, he is the author of more than 50 research papers, inventor of 19 patents and co-founder of several startup companies based on these discoveries. He explains, “Technion was founded to address the biggest challenges that humankind is facing. Viral diseases are one type of challenge that we face.” By inventing ways of boosting the immune response, viruses have a harder time attaching to subjects. “This technology has been tested globally… and has proven to be extremely effective.”

His group focuses on the interface between nanotechnology and medicine, and how to use them to improve medical care. “Doctors, chemists and engineers come together, Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Christians, men and women to be a part of this research.” He is happy to work with many different partners. “Diseases know no borders and an international effort needs to be in place.” Because of the need for brainpower to solve the problem, and because of how many lives are at stake, “this accelerates the way we do science.” This research is now at the forefront of studying the virus worldwide. Their team’s work has already had success with Osteoarthritis, Cancer and Parkinson’s. “It is [now] much more emphasized on treating Covid-19… We knew that something would hit us, and we were fortunate in our group that we [were already researching] viral diseases.”

A Not So Kosher Test Subject In The Fight For a Vaccine

Schroeder’s team is adapting their research. “We understand how the virus works, we understand how we can actually attack the virus to stop its progression.” This began five years ago with a different virus. “There are terrible diseases that impact the ability to produce aquaculture, specifically shrimp, which I personally don’t eat, but are an important source of protein and fat to many people in the world. Every year, the shrimp industry loses 25% of its product to viral diseases… A whole industry was wiped out.” So although he keeps kosher, Professor Schroeder spends a lot of his time working with shrimp. He helped invent a sophisticated food additive that builds their immunity, without the use of antibiotics. “It induces an immune response that doesn’t allow the virus to replicate.” While 0% of shrimp survived the virus without their vaccine, 96-98% of shrimp survived after receiving the dose. “Time and time again it is extremely effective in turning on the immune system and prevent the virus from infecting [the subjects].”

Schroeder says that they are working hard to translate this to Covid-19. “We are developing a vaccine that if you’re exposed to the virus you won’t be infected.” This most-likely annual vaccine would be injectable, and would also prevent those who have had it before from getting it again. “It prevents the virus from infecting other cells. The immune system curbs the ability for cells to propagate.” ViaAqua Therapeutics took over the shrimp research so Schroeder and team could devote their efforts to Covid-19. They also are ahead of the mutations in Coronavirus. “We would have to continuously monitor it and see how it mutates and then address that every time with an improved sequence… That’s the nice thing, is that you can adapt the vaccine for mutations.” Since there are at least four different strands of Covid-19 in the world currently, this would be crucial. “We had siyata d’shemaya a few years ago. You ask yourself what’s similar and what’s different [about white spot syndrome and Coronavirus]. You use the same tools as in halachic reasoning… We take the biological similarities and the differences and we’re inventing a whole new vaccine for treating humans.”

Jewish Values At His Core

Schroeder grew up religious in Jerusalem. His parents still live there. Schroeder sees the effort as an honor to the older generation. “It shows the values of government, scientists and ordinary people protecting our elders…The world is shut down in order to protect those people.” For Israelis, who are already like one family, it is as if the country is all working together for “everyone’s parents and grandparents.” Schroeder uses this as motivation to help others in finding a cure. “There are a lot of people who are [now] constantly alone. We as a society need to think about them and how we make sure that their mental strength and health are both protected.”

Dr. Schroeder conducted his Postdoctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his PhD jointly at the Hebrew and Ben Gurion Universities. After returning from MIT, Schroeder and his wife, who works in education and grew up religious also on a kibbutz in the South, settled in Binyamina, where they live with their five children. Schroeder and his wife met when both were soldiers. “I was on a base next to her kibbutz. I wanted to go daven in a shul and grab a good meal on Simchat Torah. Through a joint friend, we met outside the shul. From there, it’s history.” They came to Binyamina to be near the Technion, but were thrilled to find a warm kehilla in the process. Schroeder came to his field in a profound way. “As an officer in the Israeli army… you have a sense of what’s important and what’s less important in life. Especially when you see friends of yours… that were killed. It gives you a different sense of having a life with fulfillment and trying to make the most of each moment.” Schroeder was reading about different fields of study at that time. “I wanted to become an engineer in a meaningful field. When I saw that in chemical engineering you could actually develop medicines, [I thought,] that’s tikkun olam. Using your energies and your skills to develop new medicines.”

Schroeder is a proponent of the mind-body connection to fight disease. “When we daven ‘refuat hanefesh, refuat haguf,‘ for the health of the spirit, mental health comes first. I think I’ve never really understood that [until now].” He knows people carrying scars from their army service. “That can impact a person’s whole life. When we look at Coronavirus, the brain can affect the immune system. A Cytokine storm can be incited by the brain. The entire immune system is turned on and can risk the patients’ life. Our [Jewish] sages have been [telling us for a long time] that they are very connected.”

Keeping His Spirits Up

How does Schroeder keep his own spirits up to keep fighting this fight on all of our behalf? “As Natan Sharansky wrote about what kept him strong in the Gulag, there are things you can control, and things you cannot control. What he did when he was all alone and felt that all was against him, it kept him strong everyday. One thing I also try to do in this surreal environment, is trying to laugh. It seems sometimes… that there’s no way out of it. To find a way even to laugh, have some joy and some humor, even though it’s hard [is key].”

Since Coronavirus is being studied in many labs around the world, it increases the chances of finding a solution sooner. “Developing new medicines can only be done in a few laboratories around the world.” Schroeder’s team has a strong collaboration with a lab at University of Utah in Salt Lake City with Dr. Joshua Schiffman. “There they look at a different aspect. One of the things that protect newborns from infections is a molecule that’s released in the blood 48 hours after a baby is born. It protects babies from infection and inflammation. Josh and his colleagues are testing this on Coronavirus blood.” Thousands of research papers have already been shared on even small discoveries around it. “We all understand that we have to solve this fast and effectively… This is allowing us to develop a better vaccine and a safer one.”

In terms of a timeline, “I will pass it on to be tested in humans when I’m convinced that we’re actually going to save lives and not risk lives. The science has to be solid. When we will be convinced that what we have in our hands is effective and safe, immediately we will pass it on.” Schroeder was called up to the Home Front Command to help the army with its Covid-19 response. “The government here is supporting our research financially and calling on a near-daily basis to see how progress is going. Scientists here are all-in to try to stop this disease.” While it took them five years to find a solution for the shrimp, “I hope here for coronavirus that it happens much faster.” The [first vaccines] may not be the most effective ones. “[But] they will give protection to people today that cannot continue with their daily lives. Lung heart and elderly patients, they cannot leave the house. We owe them the vaccine. As the scientific community, part of our responsibility is to bring the vaccine to patients.”

This time of year brings it home even more for Schroeder. “The hardest thing for us is seeing the families of fallen soldiers who are unable to go to the cemeteries today [on Yom Hazikaron]. We understand it and we give them virtual hugs to be felt as physical hugs.” To see the country coming together on their balconies last night, shouting ‘am yisrael chai,‘ was a balm to Schroeder. “No matter what the political views are or what their convictions are. It was one nation, a strong feeling of Jewish and Israeli solidarity and something that I felt empowered by being a part of these efforts at this time.”

The most profound inspiration and motivation for his work comes back to Judaism. “As Jewish people, we need to be there where we are called. Hineni is a strong Jewish calling. Humanity is calling. Now I need to be the shaliach tzibur for developing a new vaccine. It may be from our lab or another…the most important thing is to find a cure for the new plague that’s affecting humanity.”

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