JERUSALEM, Sept. 4 (JTA) — As Congress debates the ethics of federal funding for stem cell research, scientists at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology hope some of the money will be headed their way.
Federal funding would be a potential boon for Technion researchers, who have spent three years studying the beneficial stem cells, the building blocks for all human tissue.
“Our biggest problem in Israel is funding for the basic research,” said Dr. Lior Gepstein, a cardiologist on the Technion research team. “If NIH will help and if there’s more work done worldwide, we have a bigger chance for discovering something than if it’s just Lior in the Technion.”
NIH, the National Institutes of Health, identified 64 stem cell lines in Israel, the United States, Australia, India and Sweden that met President Bush’s criteria of developing colonies of existing human embryonic stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells have a unique ability to renew themselves and develop into specialized cell types in the body. Scientists hope to use them to produce healthy tissue for people with debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes.
At the Technion in Haifa, Israeli scientists have been researching stem cell applications for curing diabetes and heart disease.
Dr. Karl Skorecki, a nephrologist who directs the Rappaport Family Institute for Medical Research at Technion, has been working on developing stem cells to replace pancreatic cells that produce insulin, which diabetics lack.
In July, Skorecki’s team announced that the stem cells they had been growing in a petri dish displayed characteristics of the beta cells of the pancreas. Now his research team needs to develop the requisite number of beta cells and ensure they don’t “poop out” while growing, he said.
He credits Dr. Joseph Itskovits, a Technion faculty member who launched Israel’s stem-cell research program, for first generating the embryonic stem cells as the “raw material” necessary to the research.
Itskovits and his team of researchers began studying stem cells in 1998, in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin.
The scientists developed embryonic stem cells in mice and began looking into possible applications, Itskovits told JTA. They first used the stem cells on rats with spinal injuries, helping them partially recover from paralysis.
They then created beta stem cells that produce insulin and injected them into diabetic lab rats to help reduce their hypoglycemia.
Another team of Technion scientists at the Cardiovascular Research Laboratory succeeded in growing heart cells from stem cells that have electric and mechanical characteristics of young heart tissue.
The heart cells could help cure patients who suffer from clogged arteries that lead to heart attacks by reducing the blood supply.
“The most interesting area to us is being able to regenerate heart cells in adults,” said Gepstein, who participated in the research.
“When the stem cells adjust into the heart, we hope it will integrate with the host tissue and survive and improve cardiac function,” Gepstein said. “There’s a lot of ifs, so research is the first step.”
With 5 million people in the United States suffering from heart failure and half a million new cases each year, there is a significant market for treating heart disease.
Heart transplants are one possibility, but most patients aren’t candidates, given the limited number of donors and matching genetic characteristics.
In both efforts, several more years of research are needed to determine whether the new cells would survive long enough to work effectively, and how to prevent the body from rejecting them.
At present, the Technion heart research team uses embryonic stem cells that have a self-renewing capacity — that is, they can theoretically generate an indefinite number of new stem cells.
In order to move the research forward, the scientists have to find ways to create more heart tissue and select only heart cells. Once that’s done, they will transplant the heart cells in animals and see if the new tissue replaces the non-functioning tissue.
The last hurdle would be testing the immune system’s reaction and possible rejection of the tissue. The key is to generate a number of stem cell lines with genetic variability.
It’s a similar process with Skorecki’s diabetes research. While the stem cells growing in petri dishes display genes characteristic of the beta cells of the pancreas, they now need to be “purified” to be useful.
There also must be enough of them — roughly 100 million — to replace a diabetic’s missing cells.
Both Technion teams face a long research processes that may never succeed, the scientists cautioned. But federal funding from the United States would allow other research groups to compete, fueling intense global activity and progress, Skorecki said.
“The more labs, the better,” he said. “We’re going to make every effort possible to maintain a lead role in this research by attracting funding from all sources: Israel, the U.S., private industry. Wherever we can get resources, we’ll take them.”
U.S. funding would also make their lives “more comfortable regarding ethical issues,” Itskovits added.
Stem cells come from discarded human embryos, a sticking point for right-to-lifers. From Israel’s standpoint, Jewish law allows embryos to be destroyed if the research has the potential to benefit society.
Moreover, the embryos used are surplus eggs from in-vitro fertilization for infertile couples — in other words, frozen embryos that have never been in a uterus, said Skorecki, who is an observant Jew.
“People don’t remember that distinction,” he said.
At Technion, the issue of embryo origins has never been problematic.
“Obviously it’s always been a sensitive issue and we’ve taken that into account,” Itskovits said. “We don’t act in a vacuum — we always needed proper consent forms, showing that we were using proper embryos.”
Nevertheless, while the Bush decision has dampened the ethical issues for now, the possibility of Technion being included in the NIH research is still “very preliminary,” Itskovits noted.
“We’re really happy to have the chance of doing our work in Israel with approval from the U.S.,” he said. “And it will certainly help research to have federal, local or industrial funding.”