Imagine your child suddenly loses the ability to walk and talk. You speak with a dizzying array of medical experts in search of answers, but none of them can explain what’s happening. With your child’s condition deteriorating, you visit Harvard Medical School’s Department of Biomedical Informatics, where clinicians in the Undiagnosed Diseases Network change everything. Using precision medicine techniques—personalized medical treatments that meet an individual’s needs according to genetics, health history, and lifestyle—the clinicians sequence your child’s genome and find a rare genetic mutation. With this discovery, they provide a long-awaited diagnosis and prescribe a custom drug regimen that causes rapid improvement.
This is an actual case that illustrates the promise and impact of precision medicine—a future in which data will not only make a difference in the lives of individuals with rare diseases but can also be widely applied to improve the health of people everywhere.
Now, a generous gift from Ivan and Francesca Berkowitz is helping to realize that vision by establishing the Ivan and Francesca Berkowitz Family Living Laboratory Collaboration at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and Clalit Research Institute. This two-pronged program enables an innovative international collaboration between the HMS Department of Biomedical Informatics and Clalit, Israel’s largest provider of medical care.
By combining HMS’s strengths across data science, machine learning, and computational biomedicine with Clalit’s research expertise, robust data repositories, and clinical capacity to treat patients with rare diseases, researchers and clinicians will be able to determine the efficacy of disease treatments for people across demographics and identify biomarkers that can show an individual’s risk for relapse. The program enables them to gather knowledge and apply it to real-world treatments in Israel that can benefit patients everywhere.
The collaboration is jointly led by Marion V. Nelson Professor of Biomedical Informatics Isaac Kohane, chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS and principal investigator of the Undiagnosed Diseases Network, and Ran Balicer, founding director of the Clalit Research Institute and chief innovation officer of Clalit Health Services.
“This work, powered by the passion and vision of the Berkowitz family, is an example of cross-pollination across countries, across institutions, and across disciplines. The scientific and educational paths forged by this collaboration and the medical insights enabled by these efforts will ripple beyond borders and across generations.”
Supporting precision medicine is deeply meaningful for Ivan and Francesca Berkowitz.
“My wife and I come from a tradition in which solving problems requires commitment and focus,” Ivan says. “As Holocaust survivors, our families were unafraid to identify and nurture opportunities that others may have overlooked. We take the science and technology of precision medicine very seriously—where previously unsolvable problems can be tackled with financial support.”
The funding has created opportunities to train the next generation of clinicians in this field. Postdoctoral researchers from Israel, selected as Berkowitz Postdoctoral Fellows, carry out part of their research at HMS and part at Clalit—creating strong connections between the two organizations.
Global Collaboration, Global Impact
The initial cohort of Berkowitz Fellows has already made an immediate global impact. During the first year of the fellowship, researchers from Clalit studying precision medicine at HMS wrote several groundbreaking articles using data from the Israeli health care system on the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine and booster shots, as well as the issue of myocarditis—inflammation of the heart that can be associated with COVID-19.
With 15 articles across leading medical publications such as the New England Journal of Medicine, Science, Nature Medicine, and the Lancet, their research has been instrumental in shaping clinical treatments and policy surrounding the pandemic—demonstrating that the ability to look at data systematically across populations can lead to improved approaches to health care.
“Berkowitz Fellows used their expertise, dedication to collaboration, and data from the health care system—along with HMS’s precision medicine tools—on a patient population to understand how it can better us all,” says Kohane.
Beyond predicting how individuals will respond to certain treatments in order to provide the right medication for their genetic profile, the hope for precision medicine is that it will allow clinicians to forecast a disease years before it presents itself. And that similar approaches can be used to target and treat more common, widespread chronic illnesses.
“We are in awe of how these two institutions have harmonized their respective efforts so productively in such a short period,” Ivan Berkowitz says. “We hope to accelerate future outcomes in the treatment of diseases through tapping into the offerings of these two leading organizations.”