Dvora Savitzky was born in Tel Aviv in 1941, to parents who immigrated from Poland in the 1930s. She grew up in Tel Aviv. Her interest in science emerged in high school, and she chose biology as her major area of study. During her military service she met her future husband, Haim Teitelbaum, who was to become a senior IDF officer. They married in 1962. Dvora studied biology at Tel Aviv University and completed her M.Sc. in 1966. She then transferred to the Weizmann Institute of Science, and started her doctoral studies under the supervision of Prof. Ruth Arnon at the department of Immunology.
The team was researching immune response, and trying to induce EAE (Experimental Autoimmune Encephalomyelitis) in laboratory animals. EAE is commonly used for modeling Multiple Sclerosis, an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the myelin sheath, a fatty layer surrounding the nerve fibers, isolating them and preventing transmission of electronic signals.
“Our research had shown that it was possible to produce immune response against fatty substances like the myelin sheath,” says Prof. Arnon. “Later on, when a particular protein in the brain and spinal fluids had been identified as causing the model disease, and it had become clear that it was very basic, we undertook to try to develop small, short artificial proteins which would bring about the same effect. We would then look at how they functioned, and find out whether their level of acidity or basicity did in fact influence the progression of the disease.” Prof. Michael Sela, who specialized in producing such short proteins, joined as a second supervisor.
Teitelbaum was put in charge of developing the protein-like polymers which would induce EAE in laboratory animals. For over a year she examined various substances and tried to see how they bonded with lipids, but to no purpose; the substances she injected failed to induce the disease. This led the team to speculate that if the artificial proteins did not induce the disease perhaps they could compete against the proteins that did, and work as decoy for the attacking immune cells. This approach soon proved to be much more productive. The researchers identified a group of short proteins, referred to as co-polymers, which seemed to work efficiently against EAE. One of those substances, co-polymer 1, was especially efficient, both in preventing the disease if injected before the disease-inducing protein, and in suppressing the disease if injected into an animal already afflicted with the symptoms.
This substance would later become known as Copaxone, manufactured and marketed by Teva Pharmaceuticals. In 1974 Teitelbaum completed her doctorate, and by then co-polymer 1 was a registered patent. Patent rights were granted to all three scientists in equal parts: Sela, Arnon and Teitelbaum. “Her doctorate formed the basis for developing Copaxone; this is why she has an equal share in the patent,” says Arnon. “She made a spectacular contribution to the Copaxone project, both in her doctoral research and in subsequent years. It was her project.”
After the completion of her doctorate Teitelbaum did not pursue post-doctoral research. “Raising her children meant a great deal to her, and she shouldered most of the burden since our father was often on duty and away from home for long periods,” says Teitelbaum’s daughter, Sagit Shiran. “His military career prevented her from seeking a research position abroad as she would have done otherwise at this stage in her career.”
Instead, she stayed at the Weizmann Institute and continued to work on the Copaxone as a research fellow in the department of Immunology. When Teva started developing the Copaxone as a drug she served as consultant and aided the firm in planning and carrying out research and clinical trials. “Perhaps her decision to forgo a post-doctoral position was for the best,” says Arnon. “If she had left she might have moved to different research areas and would not have taken part in developing the drug.”
Eventually, in 1980, Teitelbaum did take a year-long academic leave at Tufts University, but by then it was too late to embark on an independent academic path. Her classification did change from engineer to faculty scientist, but she could not direct a research team, supervise research students or qualify for professorship. She continued to work on the Copaxone project and related areas almost until her death from cancer in 2008. In her memory and in memory of their father, her children established a research fund at the Weizmann Institute, supporting collaborations between the Institute and hospitals.
“She was an intelligent woman but extremely modest, she never wanted to stand out,” says Shiran. “She was passionate about her work, and was a scientist through and through. Everything she did, whether it was planning a trip abroad or inviting people for dinner, was informed by scientific thinking.” Arnon agrees with the observation. “She was a first-rate scientist. A scientist in heart and soul. She was also sweet-mannered, and everyone loved her. At the Institute and when she worked with Teva she was very good at making things happen, but she did everything with good grace, and in this way was able to achieve even more than others. Her husband used to say that she was a bee (Dvora) with only honey and no sting.”