Saving Lives, One Gene At A Time


In the microscopic world of a Petri dish, a scientist can recreate life, melding male and female gametes together into a human embryo — replicated again and again as they sprout viable stem cells that will cure cancers and save patients’ lives.

Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine recently opened a research center that will serve precisely this purpose — a harbor for genetic, cardiac and regenerative cells.

“While this is a lab building, the whole focus and purpose of this is to take these laboratory advances and advance it to patient care,” said Dr. Edward Burns, executive dean of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

The Michael F. Price Center for Genetic and Translational Medicine at Einstein officially opened last Thursday, financed largely through a $25 million contribution from Michael Price, and is housed in the new Harold and Muriel Block Research Pavilion. The building features 40 biomedical laboratories where, in clinical and research collaborative efforts, scientists are fighting illnesses including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and genetic diseases. All research performed at the center is compliant with National Health Institute and federal guidelines, as well as Jewish law, Burns said.

“It’s an ideal place to translate basic research to the bedside,” said Dr. Yousin Suh, associate professor of medicine and molecular genetics.

Of particular controversy in American religious politics is the use of stem cells, which have the power to replace and repair tissues damaged by cancer and other diseases. In their own research, Price Center scientists use only adult stem cells and a federally approved line of embryonic stem cells, according to Burns. Thus far, President George W. Bush has authorized 15 permanent embryonic stem cell lines for use in laboratories that receive federal funds, Burns said. Scientists working under these auspices cannot generate their own embryos from scratch and must use stem cells replicated from the previously approved lines.

“Research using embryonic stem cells should be allowed according to Jewish law,” said Burns, who is an Orthodox Jew. “The primary obligation of the Torah is to save human life.” Burns argues that because the embryos are being cultivated outside a mother’s womb, they have no potential to develop into a viable being and bring no loss of human life.

Unlike conservative Christian tenets, Jewish law has no qualms with manipulating genetic material for therapeutic purposes, agreed Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of the Center for the Jewish Future, who holds a special ordination from Israel in issues dealing with medical ethics.

“Judaism is committed to the mission of tikkun olam [repairing the world], and anything that can be done within certain parameters to help society deal with certain health challenges is in the spirit of tikkun olam,” Rabbi Brander said.

And, according to Rabbi Brander, the stem cell research performed at the Price Center is within halachic parameters.

“The Judaic biblical tradition doesn’t grant status to a fertilized egg 40 days before gestation,” he said, explaining that these embryonic cells are still in the blastocyst stage of development, which occurs prior to fetal implantation.

The main divergence from Christianity stems from a section in Exodus, Chapter 21, where the two religions interpret a vaguely translated verse quite differently, Rabbi Brander said. In the Jewish interpretation, the words read that if two fighting men accidentally strike a woman and she miscarries, they simply must make a financial payment. If they kill her in the process, then they must pay with their lives.

Unlike this Jewish understanding, Christians believe that if the fetus dies, there must be a life-for-a-life payment — the subject changes from the woman’s life to the fetus’ life, according to Rabbi Brander.

Speaking to the “significant promises of stem cell research” and the mandate of Jews “to be a light unto the nation,” he explained that “it’s clearly a halachic, religious obligation to be involved with the appropriate religious and scientific guidelines.”

To remain within such regulations, Rabbi Brander explained, stem cell research and cloning cannot be used to create duplicate human beings, which would pose a serious moral conflict to Jewish ethics. Rather than fertilizing eggs for the sole purpose of genetic and stem cell research, scientists must use lines of leftover embryos that would otherwise be discarded, differentiating their usage from abortion or murder.

“What could be better than using genetic material in a way that would allow us to be God’s partner and find a way to keep all human beings healthy?” Rabbi Brander asked.

In addition to stem cell research, Price Center scientists are making headway in many other areas, including studies that will specifically benefit the local Bronx community. Researchers have invited the 1.4 million local residents to take part in studies involving cancer, diabetes, obesity and other illnesses, according to Burns.

Another team is researching longevity — why certain people live long — by studying a group of centenarians within the relatively homogeneous population of Ashkenazi Jews. Only one in 10,000 individuals will become a centenarian, according to Dr. Yousin Suh, a member of the research pair, and she and her colleague Dr. Nir Barzilai are examining the genetics of these elderly people and their progeny. Together, the pair was recently able to identify a gene that contributes to long life, and they hope to find that the gene extends to other ethnic groups.

To Suh, such team efforts among scientists is a key philosophy of the Price Center, where she enjoys walking up and down stairs to speak with other doctors about their research.

“The way it was designed is to boost interactions and collaborations between investigators,” she said, pointing to the mutually beneficial interactions among clinicians and researchers.