A new research center at Tel Aviv University is aiming to harness Israel’s trailblazing medical record-keeping to develop new drugs and treatments for autoimmune diseases.

During the pandemic, Israel became famous for its advanced digitized medical records. Researchers have used anonymized data from the records to explore a huge range of topics related to COVID-19 and vaccines, and the country has become a world leader in terms of studies produced.

Tel Aviv University has now opened Israel’s first multidisciplinary center to research autoimmune diseases, hoping that the “big data” that the country generates will help to answer some of the field’s most perplexing questions.

“Autoimmune diseases are very complex and as a result, very few specific medications are on offer, and disease often becomes chronic,” Prof. Uri Nevo, chair of the center’s steering committee, told The Times of Israel. “We’re hoping to progress research using data that Israel’s health system generates.

“The country has a very advanced and centralized health system that allows generation of data for large numbers of patients… There is lots of data to be studied and which can help the research — there are four big Health Maintenance Organizations, each with hundreds of thousands of members, and with detailed digitized records.”

The center is the fourth autoimmune research establishment to be set up with grants from American-Jewish philanthropists Judith and Stewart Colton. The couple, who are Tel Aviv University governors, gave $10 million for the new entity. The other centers are at Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and New York University. The Colton Center, as the new Tel Aviv establishment will be called, is expected to collaborate with the US institutions.

The category of autoimmune diseases covers over 100 conditions, including lupus, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis and Crohn’s disease. Autoimmune diseases are defined as diseases in which the immune system attacks the body’s healthy tissues, as opposed to illnesses caused by pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria.

Even though autoimmune diseases have been known to science since the beginning of the 20th century, doctors still don’t have adequate tools for prevention, treatment, or prediction of morbidity and recurrent flare-ups.