On The Probiotic Trail
Tue, 05/08/2012
Naama Geva-Zatorsky in the lab. JTA
Naama Geva-Zatorsky in the lab. JTA

Jerusalem — She’s young, smart and aims to help treat life-threatening diseases. Naama Geva-Zatorsky, 34, is among a growing number of Israeli women scientists who are gaining recognition for their contributions to scientific research.

The Weizmann Institute biologist was in Paris last month to accept the International UNESCO L’Oreal Prize for Women in Science. Dubbed “Europe’s top young researcher” by the prize committee, she received a two-year, $40,000 fellowship for her postdoctoral work at Harvard University.

The selection committee cited the “excellence and the originality of her work.”

Geva-Zatorsky’s research focuses on probiotics, which are commonly known as “good bacteria” and have the potential to treat a variety of diseases.

Geva-Zatorsky, who holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in systems biology, believes there is room for more research on the potential benefits of probiotics.

Her lab work has focused on the “good” microbes that live in the human intestines and protect our bodies by stimulating the immune system. Geva-Zatorsky will use her award to continue to investigate what leads the bacterial molecule known as polysaccharide A (PSA) to help in this process.

“There are 10 times more bacteria than human cells in the body, and I’m learning how do we interact with them and what the impact is on our health,” she said in a phone interview from Brookline, Mass., where she has been living since September with her husband, Amnon Zatorsky, and their two sons, Yonatan, 5, and Uri, 2. 

Despite the growing popularity of probiotics in an array of products — think Kefir, a dairy product made of goat’s milk and fermented grains, or the trendy tea-based drink Kombucha — both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority say that most claims made about probiotic products are unproven.

“There’s really a lot more that can be studied,” she said, noting that researchers already know that probiotics can be used to treat inflammatory bowel disease and now are investigating whether microbacteria can be used to prevent multiple sclerosis, a chronic autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system.

Additionally, Geva-Zatorsky said, certain bacteria can make humans develop more fat cells. Someday, she said, researchers may be able to create a pill to help obese people lose weight.

The same bacteria affect emotions, she said, and eventually may be used to treat depression.

Once her postdoctoral work is completed, Naama Geva-Zatorsky plans to return to Israel to set up her own research team to probe how these bacteria can treat a myriad of diseases.

Weizmann biophysics professor Zvi Kam believes Geva-Zatorsky’s determination will carry her far.

Noting that experiments are tedious and often unsuccessful, Kam said in an email that the young scientist “never complained, never was let down, and never gave up! Her optimistic spirit and joy of doing science was never broken by the tough reality.”

Geva-Zatorsky’s success is unusual in Israel given the dearth of women working in the fields of science and engineering.

Despite Israel’s emphasis on research and development, a 2008 report by the European Commission on Gender Equality pointed out Israel’s low proportion of female researchers in higher education — 25 percent — compared to the 35 percent average found among EU member countries.

Those numbers combined with a highly publicized incident recently involving Channa Maayan, a Hebrew University professor who received an award but was told by Israel’s acting health minister, who is haredi Orthodox, that a male would have to accept it for her. The incident outraged and re-energized women in the scientific community to speak out about their important roles as researchers.

There are glimmers of light, however, for female scientific researchers. Last year, Geva-Zatorsky was among 10 who received a Weizmann Institute of Science Women in Science Award. And she sees momentum at Israeli universities to increase the numbers of women in the field.

She hopes that she can pave the way for others.

“I encourage women to be brave and ask questions,” Geva-Zatorsky said.

Geva-Zatorsky also said that gender bias alone is not the only reason that women are less inclined to do scientific research.

In Israel, many believe that those who want to pursue academic careers should do research abroad, she said, where they can gain skills that will enable them to be better scientists at home. Geva-Zatorsky said that’s more difficult for women, who are still expected to be the primary child-rearers.

The women who complete their doctorates are typically older in Israel than in other countries, she said; first they complete their military service, and then they start families.

“This is why fellowships and awards that encourage women scientists to move are important, and also it helps if, mentally, people believe in us and that people would like us to go abroad and get new skills,” she said.

Geva-Zatorsky, who grew up in Moshav Ometz, a small cooperative village in central Israel, said her parents “nourished her curiosity and passion.” 

At 22, she arrived at Tel Aviv University and decided to study chemistry and biology.

For her doctorate, she studied how cancer cells respond to drugs and therapies.

With a longtime passion for the arts — she had studied ballet until she was 18 — Geva-Zatorsky also helped to organize an exhibition at Weizmann called “The Beauty of Science.”

She praises her family as well as her husband’s for their strong support.

“They believed in me and pushed me forward,” she said. “There have been moments of self doubt, but they give me encouragement.”