June 30, 2005
Israel’s Stem Cell Pioneers
Under a microscope in a research lab at the Technion's Rappaport Faculty of Medicine in Haifa, a colony of embryonic stem cells floats in a brilliant ochre-colored universe of fetal mouse tissue, which nourishes the cells. Years from now, this tiny sample could very well be a key to unlocking the cure for cancer or reversing the effects of Alzheimer's and paralysis.
It would come as no surprise to experts in the field if some of these cures emanate from the laboratories of Israeli scientists, such as Dr. Joseph Itskovitz-Eldor.
Itskovitz-Eldor and other researchers have played a crucial part in developing the emerging science of embryonic stem cells. It was at Technion in November 1998 that Itskovitz-Eldor helped isolate the cells as part of a collaborative effort spearheaded by Dr. James Thomson from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Derived from an embryo five to seven days after fertilization, embryonic stem cells have the potential to develop into any cell in the body without a high risk of rejection by a patient's immune system.
In 2001, Itskovitz-Eldor and Dr. Lior Gepstein demonstrated that heart cells could be grown from embryonic stem cells to form a biological pacemaker. An actual pacemaker made of living cells is still years away.
And Technion's Dr. Karl Skorecki discovered that stem cells could be used to produce insulin, which could eventually lead to a treatment for Type 1 diabetes.
Such is Technion's reputation in the field that the late Christopher Reeve visited the school in 2003 to explore whether its embryonic stem cell research could offer hope to those with spinal cord injuries.
Other Israeli institutions also have made their mark in stem cell research. Dr. Nissim Benvenisty of Hebrew University's Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences, located in Jerusalem, was the first to genetically manipulate an embryonic stem cell in 2000. His work demonstrated that stem cells would have a smaller chance of being rejected by the body than other treatments.
At the Hadassah Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center, also in Jerusalem, Dr. Binyamin Reubinoff's team was able to grow new nerve cells in rats that reversed symptoms of Parkinson's disease.
And the progress continues. In February, Technion announced a $1 million embryonic stem cell collaboration with Coriell Institute for Medical Research in New Jersey. And Hadassah's Stem Cell Research Center is currently working with Douglas A. Melton of Harvard University's Howard Hughes Medical Institute and department of cellular and molecular biology.
None of the potential cures are just around the corner, said Dr. Moussa Youdim, director of the Eve Topf Neurodegenerative Disease Research and Teaching Center of Excellence in Haifa. He says a realistic timetable is two to three decades. Others say the first trials with human patients could begin as soon as five to 10 years. But the trial process, too, will take time.
"For people who are sick now, embryonic stem cells aren't going to help them," said Dr. Judith Gasson, co-director of the UCLA Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine. "Nobody knows how long it's going to take, and it's always dangerous to predict, but I think that we need to really manage the expectations of the public and behave responsibly when we talk about the science. It's clearly years off."
The politics of the research also will play a role in how soon treatments are developed.
In late 2001, President Bush limited federal funding for stem cell research to 78 existing embryonic stem cell lines. Since then, the number of eligible government-approved cell lines has fallen to 22, and the ripple effects of this policy reach all the way to Israel.
"It may affect progress in the field if Bush stopped the process of more liberal funding," Hadassah's Reubinoff told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. "It has an influence on scientists and the availability for money for research."
Israeli researchers rely heavily on grants from abroad. As the number of stem cell lines available for U.S. government grants dwindles, so too will Israel's opportunities for research dollars. Technion has three stem cell lines that would be eligible for U.S. research funding. The Hadassah school has access to six.
A number of influential Christian groups oppose embryonic stem cell research, because they liken it to abortion and human cloning. To them, a fertilized embryo is a human being.
Within Islam and Judaism, a five- or seven-day-old embryo -- which must be destroyed to create a stem cell line for research -- is not recognized as a viable child. All three major Jewish religious movements, as well as a majority within the American and Israeli Jewish community, support embryonic stem cell research.
Technion stem cell researcher Dr. Karl Skorecki, an Orthodox Jew, said he is sensitive to the views of research opponents.
"There are many groups in the world, scholarly individuals, who feel that embryonic stem cell research should be questioned," he said. "We have to make sure that what we do is always transparent."
Besides aiding in the discovery of treatments, the study of embryonic stem cells might also help researchers gain insight into the complex origins of birth defects, developmental problems and disease progression.
"It's not only about developing cell therapy as a cure," Itskovitz-Eldor told The Journal, "but our understanding of early human development will benefit as a result."