Monday, October 27, 2008

Israeli scientist uses enzymes to change the world

David Shamah
Israel 21c
October 22, 2008

In the world of biology, an enzyme is a change agent - a catalyst that can cause chemical reactions, shaking things up and producing a new, and better, reality. So it's no accident that Dr. Sobhi Basheer's specialty is enzyme work; the Sakhnin native is one of the most accomplished enzyme technology researchers in Israel, an entrepreneur with no fewer than three successful startup companies to his credit, and a walking symbol of Israeli-Arab coexistence, as well. If that doesn't describe a "change agent," then what does From his post as director of the Galilee Society's research and development center - a biotechnology incubator funded by the Ministry of Science - Basheer has been working on biotechnology projects for over a decade, conducting groundbreaking work in enzyme research that has led to a number of innovative products, from environmentally friendly biodiesel fuel to artificial mother's milk fat, to a better way to make margarine, among others.

All of these products, and more, are the result of Basheer's development of the patented AMIET (activated, modified immobilized enzyme technology) research platform, which uses enzymes to create change in organic systems, resulting in a better, healthier product.

Turning waste into biodiesel

With his latest project, SB Biotechnologies, Basheer is working to transform "waste" animal and vegetable oil into diesel fuel, using genetically engineered enzymes that produce diesel in a clean, environmentally friendly manner - unlike the current popular production methods that spew out many pollutant by-products. Considering that many countries, including all members of the European Union, have mandated that all diesel fuel sold contain as much as 25 percent biodiesel, the company has already begun lining up clients.

Using Basheer's methods, they save money by avoiding the need to dispose of the pollutants, and polish their reputation for being environmentally-friendly too. "It's a revolutionary idea, so much so that we were included in this year's Israel President's Conference on new technologies," Basheer tells ISRAEL21c.

But the President's Conference was just a prelude to an even bigger event. Basheer's company will be representing Israel at the 14th UN Congress of Climate Change in Poland later this year. "It's a conference that seeks to put into action the principles of the Kyoto Protocol to lower emissions. We're one of only seven Israeli companies that have been invited to present their technology, and we are very proud," Basheer says.

For most entrepreneurs or scientists, it would have been enough to figure out a better way to produce a much-in-demand commodity, supplementing the finite supply of fossil fuels with virtually inexhaustible supplies of vegetable and animal oil. But Basheer is still active in another company he started eight years ago, called Enzymotec, which uses biotechnology to produce a range of products, such as artificially produced mother's milk fat, used in infant formula to allow better digestion of formula and key minerals such as calcium and essential fats. Another Enzymotec product mimics the ability of breast milk to boost DHA availability in the brain, critical for brain and vision development in babies.

Tackling trans-fats

Enzymotec's best known product, CardiaBeat, is partially based on research Basheer did in the framework of yet another company he ran, called Zeitouna, the Arabic word for olive. Using his AMIET technology, Basheer figured out a way to use enzymes to hydrogenate vegetable oils - turning them into solid substances for use in foods, without the usually resulting trans-fats, which are considered prime suspects in heart disease and increasingly facing bans in many communities. CardiaBeat has been approved for use in many countries around the world, and is being used in Europe, the Far East, and the US in a variety of supplements and food products, including margarine.

From his roots in relatively small-town Sakhnin, a mixed city of mostly Muslims and Druse, Basheer's name has become well-known in the world of biotechnology; he has spoken at dozens of conferences around the world, and articles written by him alone or with others have appeared in two dozen scientific publications. Plus, he holds eight patents alone or jointly with others, all in the field of biotechnology.

Basheer studied for his Master's degree at Hebrew University and pursued a PhD at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Zurich - after which he went to Japan for extensive field research.

Basheer thrives on "natural" challenges - specifically, using biotechnology to make life easier.

"One of the guiding principles in my career has been preserving the environment, as well as improving human health. Enzymes as change agents have many more uses than we even suspect, and I am glad that my research has been able to help improve both the environment and health for adults and infants," says Basheer. "With proper use of enzymes, we can develop many products more cheaply and safely - as well as develop products that would be impossible any other way, such as artificial mothers' milk fat."

Basheer, a Muslim, is proud to be Israeli. "I'm an Israeli Arab, there are many others like me," he says. "It isn't even a question for me. I represent Israel at many international conferences, and no one finds it exceptional. I, more than others, have benefitted from the resources of the country, because I received much support - financial and otherwise - from the government for my research. But I feel I have contributed more to the country than many others, as well."

Far more important to him, Basheer says, is helping humanity have a better life through biotechnology - "because whoever helps others helps his country, his community, and himself," he adds.

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