A Medical, And Societal, Breakthrough


Jacob Hanna is a medical doctor and an assistant professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel whose team of scientists discovered a foolproof way of recreating embryonic stem cells in a laboratory.

An Israeli Arab who was born and raised in the Galilee, Hanna graduated from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he was among the top 5 percent of all Israeli medical school graduates. He joined Weizmann’s department of molecular genetics in 2011 after four years of post-doctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, during which he became the first non-American to receive a prestigious Novartis Fellowship from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation. He spoke with The Jewish Week recently about his work and its implication, as well as his background as an Israeli Arab.

Q: Would you please tell me about your team’s discovery?

Hanna: We are studying embryonic stem cells and we found a way to grow them in a dish.

Why are embryonic stem cells important?

They have the ability to turn into any cell in the body. Seven years ago, a group in Japan showed that they could take any cells from the body and reprogram them to make them into embryonic stem cells.

What is your team’s research?

It focuses on understanding how this magical reprogramming works. We want to understand what takes place when the cell conversion takes place. And we are focused on identifying the enzymes that play a role in the change in an effort to improve it.

And you have had some success.

Yes. Previously, less than 1 percent of skin cells had successfully been changed. We were able to identify the protein that blocked the cells from changing. We removed this inhibitor and we now get a 100 percent success rate.

How long does it take for the cell to change?

We were able to speed up the process dramatically. Instead of 21 days, it now takes only seven days. And that is important because you want something that is very easy and speedy for the patient.

How long did it take to make this discovery?

We discovered it after a half-year in the laboratory.

Which groups supported your work?

The Israel Cancer Research Fund provided our first grant. We were fortunate because when I got hired, they funded my lab. I got a $100,000 grant as a young scientist, and it also supported one of my post doctorate students. It supports many researchers in Israel. And their money — I think it has totaled more than $200,000 over the last four years — allowed us to go out and get money from others.

Why is this research so important?

When you see how cells change so dramatically, you begin to understand how normal cells become cancer cells. And in transforming cells, we want to make the best quality stem cells so they are stable and there is no risk of them becoming cancerous. That is a long process that may take three or four years, but I am most optimistic.

Have any human trials begun using these man-made stem cells?

Yes, a group in Japan started using them for people with macular degeneration in their eyes. And I expect that there will be other trials over the next three or four years.

How large is the team you oversee?

We are 15 in total — eight graduate students, two post-doctoral students, and five staff members, including me.

How many of you are Israeli Arabs?

There are four Israeli Arabs — one student, one post-doctoral student, a staff member and me.

How unusual is that at Weizmann?

I was recruited as a main investigator, which is the equivalent of an assistant professor in the U.S. And there is only one other Israeli Arab here who is a full professor. I believe these numbers will slowly increase as more and more Palestinian students excel and fulfill their potential despite the difficulties they face.

Did you encounter many problems as an Israeli Arab in in Israel in advancing to your current position?

I encountered some problems, but now as a mature scientist the political situation in Israel is very uninteresting to me; it does not affect me. … Unfortunately, minorities here have problems in trying to reach the top. I was fortunate to have a supportive family and one that was financially well off. So I was able to get a higher education and realize my talents. I hope that more and more Arabs and other minorities break through even more.