ZICHRON YAAKOV, Israel - Tel Aviv-based BIRD-F, the U.S.-Israel Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation, announced the approval of 11 joint Israeli-American high-tech projects.

A total of $31 million was committed over a period of one to four years, with $23 million from the companies themselves. Four of the 11 projects are in the life sciences, including a cooperative venture between Rehovot-based Omri Laboratories Ltd. and Bayer Corp. to jointly bioengineer an improved drug for hemophilia patients.

BIRD-F Executive Director Dov Hershberg, who has said that he hopes that the BIRD-F can help jump-start the life sciences as it had successfully done with Israel's software industry, has been sponsoring a series of special seminars and workshops. He pointed to the latest round of strategic partnerships, which he said "are destined to benefit Israel's life sciences industry."

In Jerusalem last week, the medical genetics unit of the Sha'are Zedek Medical Center sponsored a clinical conference for hospital staff workers on preventing ovarian cancer. Ephrat Levy-Lahad, head of the unit, introduced gynecological oncologist Andrew Berchuck from Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. She said his research set up a biological link between half of all ovarian cancers and the total number of times a woman ovulates over her lifetime, which suggested that suppression of ovulation has a protective effect. Berchuck's recent molecular studies of endometrial and ovarian cancers had identified alterations in specific BRCA1 and p53 genes. Tumors showing evidence of p53 genetic mutation, which normally stops cells from proliferating into cancer, account for half of all ovarian cancer cases, and are considered the most aggressive form of ovarian cancer.

Just across town, in Ein Kerem, the Agnes Ginges Center for Human Neurogenetics was being inaugurated at the Hadassah Medical Center. It is dedicated to research into the genetics of neurodegenerative diseases. Oded Abramsky, head of the Department of Neurology, who was named head of the center, said that research there could "provide the molecular tools to eliminate the scourge of dementia, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease."

Abramsky said that Stanley Prusiner, Nobel Laureate and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who collaborates with Hadassah neurologist Zeev Meiner on Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, had recommended to the Ginges family in Australia that the center be set up at Hadassah. Abramsky told BioWorld International, "We foresee that the Ginges Center will collaborate with other major centers in the study of defective genes that are responsible for neurological disease to characterize the chain of events set up by these mutations."

Back in Tel Aviv, BIRD-F's Dov Hershberg announced that Oread Inc., the Lawrence, Kan.-based contract pharmaceutical company, is looking into establish laboratories in Israel to advance the research capabilities of young biotechnology companies for their clinical trials - a widely recognized need in Israel.

Oread takes clients' compounds from discovery through all necessary phases for new drugs, including final clinical trial on humans. "The establishment of such a facility in Israel would not only bring additional clinical trial activity to the country, but also would help local companies network with the world's leading pharmaceutical companies," Hershberg told BioWorld International, describing the move as "a turning point for the biotechnology field in Israel."

BIRD-F is evaluating a proposed cooperation between Oread and an Israeli biotechnology company that develops a treatment for Alzheimer's disease. Hershberg anticipates senior managers from Oread will arrive in Israel during July to check possible cooperations with other Israeli companies.

Hershberg said there are "many companies of great potential here" but most "are sitting at a bottleneck in development and passage to trials leading to a finished product for marketing."

Allon Reiter, editor of the THCG Giza Israel IVA 2000 Yearbook, produced this year's 466-page survey of venture capital and private equity. Reiter, speaking from Tel Aviv, agreed with Hershberg's assessment, telling BioWorld International, "The problem with most biotechnology companies in Israel is that they come out of academia at a far too early stage, requiring years beyond the lifespan of most venture funds" and searching for management.