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Stem-cell Researchers in Israel Warily Eye Debate in Washington

June 16, 2005
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Dr. Shulamit Levenberg pulls out a dish of human embryonic stem cells from an incubator and carefully places them under a microscope to see how they are beginning to take form as human tissue. Levenberg, a researcher at the Technion University in Haifa, is working on cutting-edge tissue engineering research with the help of human embryonic stem cells — research that she hopes will eventually lead to the creation of lab-manufactured tissues and organs for transplants.

These days, Israeli scientists who have helped pioneer the field of embryonic stem-cell research are warily eying Washington, where a showdown is brewing between the U.S. Congress and the White House over federal policy on research in the field.

A bill passed in May by the U.S. House of Representatives seeks to expand government funding for embryonic stem-cell research and now is set to go to the Senate. President Bush has threatened to veto the legislation, which would expand the number of research lines of stem cells eligible for federal funding.

According to current law, funding is available only to research lines that existed in 2001 and before.

Developments in Washington are a cause of concern for Israeli scientists because if research funding in the United States decreases, there will be less of a pool for funding worldwide.

“It may affect progress in the field if Bush stopped the process of more liberal funding,” said Dr. Binyamin Reubinoff, who heads the Hadassah Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center. “It has an influence on scientists and the availability for money for research.”

In the United States, there has been opposition to embryonic stem cell research from some Catholics and conservative Christian groups who link it to human cloning and abortion.

Furthermore, Bush and his supporters claim that life is being destroyed by using the stem cells because embryos are destroyed in the process of the research.

American Jewish groups across the religious and political spectrum have joined together to advocate for more stem-cell research.

And in Israel, following the dictates of Jewish law that do not view the embryo as potential life until it is inside the uterus of an expectant mother, such research is not controversial.

“In Israel the attitudes are much more positive,” said Levenberg, who herself is an observant Jew. “Here it is not thought of as killing the cells but of using them to save life.”

Researchers are eager to use embryonic stem cells, which appear just days after fertilization, because the cells have the ability to develop into body tissue.

Theoretically, once the DNA of such cells is successfully manipulated in the lab, they can one day be transplanted into humans to help treat a wide range of diseases, among them neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases and Multiple Sclerosis, as well as heart failure, diabetes and other conditions.

In Israel funding for research is scarce and researchers rely heavily on grants from abroad.

The Hadassah Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center has been one of the leading labs for stem-cell research internationally. Hadassah, in cooperation with universities in Australia and Singapore, was the second group in the world to derive stem cells from human embryos.

The group produced six of the human embryonic stem-cell lines that are currently available for federally funded research in the United States. Some of these lines are among those that are distributed to labs researching stem cells around the world.

In Jerusalem, Reubinoff’s team at Hadassah found that by implanting human stem cells into the brains of rats, some symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are alleviated. The discovery, announced last year, gives some hope to the millions around the world who suffer from the disease because it may pave the way for using embryonic stem cells as a treatment.

Along with the Technion and Hadassah, the Hebrew University is the other cutting-edge research leader in the embryonic stem-cell research field in Israel.

Recently, Hebrew University’s Dr. Nissim Benvenisty went to Capitol Hill together with several other U.S. researchers to brief lawmakers in the House and the Senate about embryonic stem-cell research.

A professor of genetics and the head of the stem-cell unit department at the life sciences institute at Hebrew University, Benvenisty presented new data from his lab as he tried to convince the lawmakers that embryonic stem-cell research, properly regulated, was the responsible scientific way to go.

Benvenisty’s research team was the first to genetically manipulate human embryonic stem cells and in doing so, found that such cells have a lower chance of being rejected by the body than other cells, he said.

His lab is also involved in taking diseased embryos that were discarded during in vitro fertilization treatments and studying them in order to better understand the diseases they carry.

He recalls getting word that he and his lab would be able to use human embryotic stem cells for the first time. Previously they had been limited to the embryotic stem cells of mice.

“I literally could not sleep at night,” said Benvenisty. “We are in special days where we can do real pioneering research; we call it ‘the cell that can do everything.’

“It can generate every cell in our body,” he said, while at the same time it is involved in so many aspects of human medicine.

“I am sure it will revolutionize the way we will do research and also transplantation medicine.”

In her lab at the Technion in Haifa, Levenberg describes the process she and her team are undertaking to help create human tissue — a technique she learned while doing post-doctoral work at M.I.T. in Boston.

They have created sponge-like structures out of biodegradable scaffolds made from a combination of polymers. On those scaffolds they attach cells and by exposing them to certain hormones, are trying to grow specific types of tissues, including skin and cartilage.

Levenberg and other researchers credit Israel for quickly assembling regulations and guidelines that helped enable their research.

In 2001 the Bioethics Committee of the National Committee of Science wrote the regulations that now govern the research in Israel. It stipulates what kind of embryos could be used for research and how consent should be procured from families who were no longer using the embryos as part of in vitro fertilization treatments.

Since then, the guidelines have been studied around the world by other countries attempting to set their policies for such research.

Jewish law’s tenet that an embryo outside of the uterus does not constitute life helped pave an easier path for research in Israel, said Dr. Michel Ravel, a professor in the department of molecular genetics at the Weizmann Institute of Science and the chair of the committee that set Israel’s regulations on embryonic stem-cell research.

“Jewish law has a strong tendency towards saving lives,” he said. “Therefore it was easier than in many countries that are under Christian influence to accept the ethical value of the guidelines.”

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