There are no problems just challenges, and AMEN, we have plenty of those to keep us busy. We are forced out of our comfort zone when presented with an unfamiliar or a tough issue, both at work and at home. These encourage us to join forces, change perspective, find new ways to approach difficulties, and grow stronger from the process.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michal Izrael, PhD, VP Research and Development at Kadimastem.
Dr. Izrael joined Kadimastem in 2009. Prior to joining Kadimastem, as part of her doctoral work at the Weizmann Institute of Science in the laboratory of Prof. Revel, Dr. Izrael was a central part of the team that invented and developed the technology which became the basis for Kadimastem’s cell therapy product for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and other neurodegenerative diseases. At Kadimastem, she served as the head of the drug screening team, based on human oligodendrocytes (Myeling forming cells) and, in 2012, was appointed to run the neurodegenerative department at Kadimastem, responsible for Kadimastem’s cell product for ALS. In 2017 she was appointed as VP for Research and Development for ALS and Neurodegenerative Diseases and in 2021 appointed to VP of R&D. Dr. Izrael holds a PhD in molecular genetics from the Weizmann Institute of Science and M.Sc. in Neurobiology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As an eternal child, I love to play. My favorite is the sandbox with the highest level of research, located in the ultimate playground we call science. One of the things that has guided me throughout my career is finding creative solutions to unmet clinical needs. In other words, I had to have the passion that what we are doing is applicative and may serve humankind. Almost all creativity involves purposeful playing and to me, there is nothing better, than playing with the building blocks of the human body.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
In the beginning we tried to generate cells called oligodendrocytes. These cells provide the needed protection to neurons and allow a proper electrical conduction. No matter how much we tried, we got a low number of oligodendrocytes, and a high number of cells called astrocytes. For a few years, we tried to find ways to get rid of the astrocytes and enrich the oligodendrocytes cell population. Until one day, we decided that if we can’t fight them, we may as well join them. With this new approach, we discovered the amazing world in which astrocytes can protect neurons by several mechanism of actions. From this story I learned that sometimes, if we look at challenges from different angles, the solution may actually reveal itself.
It’s fascinating to see how our ideas move from concept to a real therapy that is being tested for the first time in-humans. We feel like pioneers. When we began, we were developing treatments that had yet to be defined, with science that had yet to be tested, to treat diseases that we were only beginning to understand.
Developing cell-based therapies for ALS (a motor neuron disease) and insulin dependent diabetes, like Type-I diabetes, was uncharted land. As such, we were faced with, and are still facing, new challenges. The technology is moving quickly. The regulations, however, are moving slower and will depend on how the field develops. This requires us to continuously set the highest quality bar for our products to minimize any risks.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I guess I suffer from the absent-minded scientist syndrome and as such my life is interwoven with many funny stories. For example, in the Israeli army I served in the armed forces as a tank instructor. One day, just after a visit to the dentist for a treatment, I remembered I had to give a lesson in front of 50 soldiers. With half of my mouth still very much asleep from the Novocain, I did my best to deliver a serious lesson — no smiling — and to stay as still as possible. My serious lesson turned into the entertainment of the week. The more I spoke, the more the audience laughed. And eventually, l broke “instructor” character and laughed too. I’m certain that lesson is remembered until today.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
One of the things that makes Kadimastem stand out is our ability to use the building blocks of the human body to create Insulin secreting islet cells to cure diabetes and brain cells to treat ALS.
Every day, we ask ourselves: how and what can we do better?
The challenges are enormous.
How do we characterize these cells? Do they function properly? Do they secrete insulin in response to glucose levels in the case of diabetes? Do they protect the nervous system in the case of ALS? Are the cells safe? How many cells to inject? How do we protect them from the immune system?
We are constantly using all the tools in our hands, inventing new ones and adapting novel approaches from other disciplines to create the optimal cells that will do the work as needed.
The Kadimastem team is very dedicated to helping, in and outside of the lab. For example, every year, we participate in the ALS race organized by the Israeli ALS association to increase awareness of this devastating disease.
We shed our lab coats, put on our running wear, stretch and get ready to run. Last year, many of us even agreed to be featured in a promotional video.
For several months leading up to the 5 to 10 km race, company employees prepare for the run after working hours. At the actual event, we meet many ALS patients and their families, and we do our best to lend our support. This experience, every year, without fail, also further motivates and inspires to continue to do what is needed to develop a therapeutic treatment.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are generating human astrocytes (AstroRx®), which are nervous system supporting cells. In many neurological diseases such as ALS, Multiple Sclerosis and Glaucoma, astrocytes can support the nerve cells, which support your brain telling your various body muscles how to move.
We’ve already demonstrated in a first-in-human clinical trial in ALS patients that astrocytes (AstroRx®) are safe and may provide benefit to patients, like stopping the progression of the disease.
These days, we are moving along the regulatory pathway with the hope of advancing our clinical trial in ALS to the next phase as well as exploring how we might use these same astrocytes to treat other neurological diseases. Our goal is always to help the millions of patients in need.
We are also very excited about our progress with IsletRx, which is being developed not as a treatment but an actual cure for diabetes. IsletRx is a population of clinical grade pancreatic islet cells which produce and secrete insulin and glucagon in response to the body’s blood glucose (sugar) levels. Micro-encapsulation technology protects IsletRx from attack by the immune system. And Kadimastem has a special technology that ‘purifies’ the cells, meaning after we grow lots of islets from stem cells, we select the best from the lot and these are what we put into the micro-capsules.
We have demonstrated that these cells cure diabetic animals and have already taken our first steps with the regulatory agencies to test IsletRx in diabetic humans.
Imagine: no more glucose monitoring, no more insulin injections, no more low sugar level emergencies.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
There is a famous photo from 1927 of 17 Nobel Prize winners with only one woman sitting amongst them. Of the winners that year, only one had been awarded TWO Nobel prizes.
HER name was Marie Curie.
The fact that Madame Curie was the only woman amongst the winners clearly exemplified that women have to work twice as hard and have extraordinary success to get to the same position as men.
Not much has changed since 1927. Though the percentage of women in STEM continues to grow, men still outnumber women, mainly at the executive and decision-making levels. I was privileged to be raised by a mother who encouraged me to try everything and supported any direction I chose, emphasizing that the glass ceiling was proverbial, not real, and that I shouldn’t pay any attention to it. To have a real change, we must work on changing our perspective from so many angles, including education, culture, psychology, environment, finance and so on.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
One of the biggest challenges is to have the courage to just jump into the cold water. Metaphorically, women wish to master all swimming styles before they take the plunge. However, you don’t need to know all swimming styles to swim from one side to the other.
During my career I watched many talented women miss wonderful opportunities because they hesitated when approached with a job proposition or a TV interview. They felt they were not good enough or qualified enough and did not have all the answers to all the questions. What is sad is that the contrary was actually true. Remember that the same doubt that holds you from moving forward is the one that makes you excel and be more professional at what you do.
Another challenge is that women face harder choices between their professional success and personal/family fulfillment. A recent study in the US showed that among married senior managers, more than 66% of men had children while less than 33% of women had children.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
One myth about being a woman in STEM is that there is a relationship between gender and analytical abilities. Let’s clear this up right now — the fact of the matter is girls and boys are equally competent.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
I continue to learn, but I would say that the first 5 leadership lessons are:
- Find your WHY– Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said that a person who knows their “why” for his existence will be able to bear almost any “how”. I relate to this sentence, as it is at the core of all the things that we do. The art is to make the team work for the joint WHY from an emotional perspective. Why do we do what we do? In our case, we are working hard to bring new cell therapies to help treat or cure the millions of patients in need.
- Embrace challenges– There are no problems just challenges, and AMEN, we have plenty of those to keep us busy. We are forced out of our comfort zone when presented with an unfamiliar or a tough issue, both at work and at home. These encourage us to join forces, change perspective, find new ways to approach difficulties, and grow stronger from the process.
- It’s all about teamwork — It’s a team effort and we must remember that the credit belongs to each link in the chain. The fact that ‘you’ know that your team is doing well is not enough. It’s important to proactively recognize their contributions every day by letting those on your team know that they are appreciated.
- Maintain an inventor mindset — ALWAYS play. ALWAYS bring new ideas. This is the key to achieving and making your vision brighter. As such, we encourage everyone, no matter their level in the company, to speak, share and to be an active participant in developing the technologies.
- Be proactive — Like the Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine song goes — Get on your feet! Get up and make it happen. The more proactive you are, the quicker you will realize your goal.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Leadership is taken, not given. You should take a leadership role only if you believe in the purpose, NOT for nurturing your ego. There are many ways do it. Find your own path to lead, where you can live in peace with yourself, and be the person you wish to see in others.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Listen, learn, and then share your view. Make sure that each team member knows exactly what is expected from her/him and that they understand how their part furthers the company’s vision. Make clear to each individual what their professional career development is. This will motivate those on your team to be marathon runners who will bring the company vision to a reality, as you cross the finish line together.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
One of the people who has had the biggest impact on me professionally is Professor Michel Revel. He is a Professor Emeritus of Molecular Genetics at the Weizmann Institute of Science. His research on Interferon led to the development of Interferon-beta therapy for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, Rebif®, a blockbuster drug marketed worldwide. He founded Kadimastem and serves as its CSO and has a special way of thinking and great abilities in translating basic science to applicative therapies. I worked for him at a pivotal moment in my professional development and I am deeply grateful for his guidance along the way and for his support in bringing our current vision of cell therapies to patients in need.
The woman who I owe all my gratitude and my life is my mother, who always believed in me and pushed me to achieve my dreams. During my very long hours at work over the years, she helped me a great deal by taking care of my children. When asked by others what she does for a living, she would reply, “I am making a tremendous contribution to science.”
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am still in the process of contributing something meaningful to this world. I hope that our work at Kadimastem will be fruitful and we can bring an effective treatment for ALS and a cure for diabetes. Moreover, we always make sure to share our scientific discoveries with the scientific community, with the hope that this information might be useful to the development of other therapeutics and cures.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I belong to an Israeli selective forum called Osheya that brings together powerful, independent female figures in the wellness, health and medical sectors. Osheya’s members hold positions of power in the private and public sectors, and play an active role in the shaping of their businesses and worlds. If we can generate such an organization for women in STEM worldwide, it would be a great platform for networking and promoting women and great ideas internationally.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” J.K Rowling.
This quote is relevant to my life as I too believe that the choices we make define us and our potential to make a real impact.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would love to have breakfast with Kamala Harris, the first female Vice President of the US. I find her extremely inspiring and would love to hear first-hand how she broke the glass ceiling. I’d also like to lunch with Kelly Clarkson. I think she’s wonderful and I’m always up for good fun and laughter.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.