For the first time, the European Union has funded an Israeli institution to lead a multi-national scientific initiative. The partners in the project — which will make use of indigenous plant life in countries in the Mediterranean Sea basin to create a variety of cosmetics, medications, and food — make up a diverse coalition.
Hadassah College in Jerusalem is the lead institution for an up-to-$2.7-million grant from the Joint Management Authority of the European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument for its Bio-Xplore project.
Rutgers University is one of the partner institutions affiliated with the project, along with the Biodiversity and Environmental Research Center of the Palestinian Authority, Leitat Technological Center in Spain, the Hellenic Regional Development Center in Greece, and North Carolina State University.
Incoming Hadassah College president Dr. Bertold Fridlender, who initiated the project, described its groundbreaking significance at the Southern New Jersey Hadassah’s spring conference and education symposium, held May 6 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Monroe.
He told the more than 150 participants that it was especially meaningful for him to talk about the project for the first time publicly in New Jersey.
“Rutgers is my second academic institution after [Hadassah] College, and New Jersey is my second home,” said the Chilean-born Fridlender, who has been a visiting professor at Rutgers since 2008 while also serving as chair of the Hadassah College Biotechnology program for the last eight years.
Additionally, he is founding partner and CEO of Nutrasorb, LLC, a central NJ company that develops “health-enhancing functional foods and ingredients with naturally concentrated beneficial phytonutrients from fruits and vegetables.” The company was spun off from Rutgers, the culmination of a long-term collaboration of leading natural products scientists, food engineers, and nutritionists from leading universities.
While he will soon no longer be shuttling between homes in East Brunswick and Jerusalem, Fridlender said, part of his heart will remain at Rutgers.
The two-year Bio-Xplore will be “the direct result of the work I have done here at Rutgers,” said Fridlender. Hopes are that the project, based on the study of flora in Asia and Africa, will yield compounds that can be used to satisfy a growing world market while providing an environmentally friendly source of income to the inhabitants of those regions.
“Twenty five percent of all drugs come from plants,” said Fridlender, who has served as managing director and CEO of a number of biotechnological start-ups in Israel. The natural compounds and ingredients are expected to gain wide acceptance since their use would “have science behind it,” said Fridlender.
The “relatively unexplored” Mediterranean Sea area is one of the world’s largest centers of plant diversity, with approximately 25,000 different species, said Fridlender. Its population has been using natural preparations to treat diseases for centuries.
The project has another appealing component; because 17 percent of the region’s plants have been classified as endangered, another aim of the endeavor is to protect these natural resources.
While the EU has previously funded social projects involving Israel, Fridlender said, getting them on board for this scientific undertaking was no easy feat and required convincing a Palestinian institution to participate.
“As you know, the European Union is quite political,” said Fridlender, adding with some pride that of the 700 proposals submitted to the EU, only 37 were approved. His was one of two with an Israeli connection.
Bio-Xplore plans to establish a Mediterranean branch of the Global Institute for Bio-Exploration, which already has centers in Asia, Africa, and America, to provide scientific and educational support and increased employment in such related fields as agriculture and food and cosmetics production and to supplement the area’s biotechnical and pharmaceutical industries.
It will also provide cross-cultural opportunities as participants collaborate on preparing articles for scientific publications and engage in business dealings.
The project will be part of the curriculum of the biotechnology department at Hadassah College, which, Fridlender pointed out, was the first academic institution in Israel to offer a degree in biotechnology.
He said since its December approval, Bio-Xplore has “been rolling along” with several meetings among students and partners having already taken place, and that excitement is building.
“The conditions, the knowledge, and the minds in Israel today are an outstanding base for this project,” said Fridlender, “and we are confident in its success.”