Michal Schwartz: Uncovering Treatments for Spinal Cord Injuries

Dr. Michal Schwartz, one of Israel’s leading researchers and a senior neurobiologist at Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute of Science, has made such important scientific discoveries that Superman even dropped by to see what she was up to.

The late actor Christopher Reeves, who starred in the Superman movies and became a quadriplegic after a spinal cord injury, came to her lab in 2003. Previously, Schwartz—a leading expert in injury to the central nervous system (CNS)—had gone to his home to report on her experimental technique for treating spinal cord injuries. “I was a very good friend of his,” she recalls sadly. “He was amazed by the high quality of science in Israel and researchers’ urge to be daring.”

Schwartz herself could aptly be described as a superwoman. Married to a Weizmann Institute biophysicist/biochemist, she is the mother of four children, 13 to 33 (including a physician, a clinical psychologist and a bioinformatics specialist), and grandmother of four. Born and raised in Israel and married at 21, Schwartz earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and went straight on to earn her doctorate in chemical immunology from Weizmann at 26. She did postdoctoral research at the University of Michigan and was already a Weizmann professor at 35.

In 1996, she founded Proneuron Biotechnologies to turn her discoveries into therapy. The company is developing and commercializing a treatment for acute spinal cord injuries, as well as other treatments using the immune system for chronic neurologicaldiseases that until now have been regarded as incurable. Her research team has shown that Copaxone, a multiple sclerosis drug developed at the Weizmann Institute, might stop or at least slow down progressive eyesight loss due to nerve degeneration in glaucoma.

Her 1998 Nature Medicine article—which showed that the immune system, thought to be harmful in the event of CNS injury, can help it to recover—ran counter to conventional wisdom. “Before I sent the article for publication, one colleague at Weizmann advised me to hide it in a drawer instead, as it would hurt my reputation. But I agree with Abraham Lincoln that if you really believe in some thing, don’t waste time trying to persuade others that you are right. Listen to your internal voice. If you are wrong, 10 angels won’t help you.”

Schwartz sees science as a way of life, but her family is very important to her. “I always ran to work, came back at 5 p.m., devoted four hours to them and returned to the lab. I made sure to attend parent–teacher meetings and important events. When my youngest complained I travel a lot and I asked him if he wanted me to abandon my career, he said no because ‘it does you good.’ It’s very intensive, but if you love it, you broadcast it and your kids value perseverance and dedication.”

Although more Israeli women are studying science and pursuing their doctorates, she is disappointed that more don’t rise higher to become department heads. “I want to show women that it’s possible to have a family and a science career. It isn’t easy, as women get no discounts, but it can be done. I’ve found that women scientists are less dogmatic than men and bring more boldness to their work.” Schwartz is certainly a good example.