April 2003
Volume 44, Issue 4
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Lecture  |   April 2003
Introducing Michal Schwartz, the 2002 Recipient of the Friedenwald Award
Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science April 2003, Vol.44, 1406. doi:10.1167/iovs.02-1005
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      Robert N. Weinreb; Introducing Michal Schwartz, the 2002 Recipient of the Friedenwald Award. Invest. Ophthalmol. Vis. Sci. 2003;44(4):1406. doi: 10.1167/iovs.02-1005.

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Michal Schwartz, PhD, is Professor of Neuroimmunology and holds The Maurice and Ilse Katz Professional Chair in Neuroimmunology at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel. She is being recognized for her major contributions to the understanding of disease and injury processes in the visual system, particularly glaucoma. She also is being recognized for her leadership, discoveries, and innovations in neuroimmunology and for devising highly ingenious, promising methods for treating neurodegenerative diseases, including glaucoma. 
Her research, although related to all aspects of the central nervous system’s response to diseases and injuries, concentrates in particular on the optic nerve and eye. Her work is highly relevant to the nervous system in health and disease, but she chose the visual system as her main model and glaucoma as a major direction for her clinically oriented research. 
Research in Dr. Schwartz’s laboratory has been focused for the past 20 years on attempts to discover why neurons in the central nervous system, in general, and in the optic nerve and retina, in particular, do not recover after injury to their axons. The accumulated findings have led to the formulation of the novel concept that the impairment of processes of repair of damaged neurons, as well as the failure to rescue potentially viable neurons in the central nervous system, is a result of the restricted nature of the dialogue between the central nervous system and the immune system and that both repair and rescue can be boosted by appropriate immune system manipulation. 
Her research has shown that the retinal ganglion cell loss induced by glutamate toxicity or acute crush injury is immune mediated and can be reduced by vaccination with the immunomodulatory drug glatiramer acetate (Copaxone; Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Ltd., Petach Tikva, Israel). This is particularly relevant to glaucoma, as the ongoing loss of retinal ganglion cells in glaucoma may be partially attributable to a process of secondary degeneration occurring in an extracellular nerve environment made hostile to spared neurons as a consequence of the primary insult by IOP or other risk factors. More recently, her laboratory has reported that a similar increase in IOP in rats of different strains results in differing amounts of retinal ganglion cell loss. Moreover, there is a correlation between resistance to autoimmune disease and the ability to withstand an insult induced by an increase in IOP. These findings may explain why patients with glaucoma experience different degrees of visual loss after pressure reduction, even when the severity of the disease at the time of diagnosis is similar. 
The work of Dr. Schwartz has changed the way in which glaucoma is viewed. Several years ago, she first suggested that glaucoma, as a neurodegenerative disease, should be investigated as a disorder that is potentially amenable to neuroprotective therapy. Her groundbreaking research and view of glaucoma as a neurodegenerative disease has influenced an entire community of vision scientists to adopt this working hypothesis as the basis for their experimental and clinical research in glaucoma. Consequently, the subject of neuroprotection is featured prominently today at virtually every scientific meeting on basic or clinical research in glaucoma. 
Michal is recognized by colleagues and collaborators for her striking ingenuity and mental agility. She is able to connect and associate data from seemingly disparate sources and almost effortlessly amalgamate them into new hypotheses, complete with methods for testing them. The time interval she requires between giving birth to a concept and verifying it is short. Michal has mastered techniques from many fields, including immunohistochemistry, electrophysiology, and surgery. This diverse background enables her to discover profound new associations among different concepts. For instance, she conceived the novel idea of beneficial autoimmunity and developed its logical consequence of neuroprotective vaccination. Not only did she originate these ideas against the resistance of her colleagues, but she also solved practical problems of converting this basic science into potential clinical reality. 
As another example, the preliminary work on the spinal cord injury and glaucoma vaccine was performed with myelin basic protein, which is unsuitable for human use due to risk of multiple sclerosis. While her team argued about the problem, she magically arrived at a suitable solution, glatiramer acetate. This drug, which is already used to treat multiple sclerosis, has now been demonstrated to work well in her laboratory. 
Married with four children, Michal has successfully combined her private life with her commitment to science and medicine. Her oldest daughter is a physician, as are both her sons-in-law. She has two grandchildren. Her husband, Michael Eisenbach, is a distinguished Professor of Biochemistry at the Weizmann Institute. Michal was, and still is, the homemaker in this large family—quite an astounding feat when one considers the extent of her dedication to and productivity in her research. 
When she started her tenure-track work at the Weizmann Institute, they put her office in the broom cabinet. Later, her full professorship was delayed for many years, because the relevant committees could not understand the ingenuity of her radically new ideas. They branded them controversial and thus unsuitable for promotion. Obviously, this has changed. In addition to her research at Weizmann, she is active as chairperson of the scientific advisory board of the company that was established to convert her inventions to clinical products. The first product this company is developing is for inducing nerve regeneration in patients with transection of the spinal cord by injecting activated autologous macrophages into the lesion. This project has completed an FDA-approved phase I clinical trial. The second compound developed by her company probably will be ophthalmic, perhaps an immunomodulatory agent as a therapy for glaucoma. 
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