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Pushing the boundaries of stem cell research

By Roberta Neiger Israel21c April 25, 2005

Israeli scientists are pushing the boundaries of an already cutting-edge
field: stem cell research. They have grown heart cells from human embryonic stem
cells and have established companies promising, among other things, to
produce new blood vessels, regenerate cartilage and heal spinal cord injuries.

Coming together from both academia and industry, they have joined to form a
consortium aimed to further develop stem cell-based therapies. The Consortium
Bereshit for Cell Therapy testifies to the importance of stem cell research
in Israel.

Established last year, this $15-20 million project of the Chief Scientist’s
Office of the Ministry of Industry and Trade is composed of Israel’s – and
some of the world’s – leading stem cell researchers.

“Our main goal is to create embryonic stem cells that will be FDA
approved,” the group’s technical manager, Iris Lewin, told ISRAEL21c. “We are also
working to characterize the cells: to understand if they will become cells of
the heart, pancreas, liver, etc. At the same time, we must characterize the
cells’ genome, learn to isolate them and influence them to develop into specific

Another major focus of the Consortium is ‘tool development’. Attempting to
bring cell therapy products into clinical uses, researchers here attack
problems of cell availability and viability, cryopreservation and safe and
efficient ways to transfer cells from lab to operating room.

“Medicines only treat symptoms, not diseases themselves,” says Dr. Arik
Hasson, the head of the Stem Cell Consortium Project and CEO of Gamida-Cell.
“Stem cell therapy can offer a real solution to nervous system disease and
cancer. It can be applied to cardiac disorders, renal failure, diabetes mellitus,
autoimmune disease, bone and joint disorders, genetic illness and skin
wounds,” he told ISRAEL21c.

Hasson points out that while organ transplants have helped victims of liver,
heart and kidney disease, they are accompanied by numerous problems. As the
demand is far greater than the supply, not enough organs are available for
patients in need. In addition, after transplants, the body often recognizes
new organs as foreign objects, and destroys them. To counter this, patients
receive immuno-suppressive medication, rendering their bodies susceptible to
bacteria, viruses and cancer.

“Stem cells provide an ideal solution for the problems associated with
transplantation,” says Hasson. “They will allow for organ regeneration.”

There are two major types of stem cells, embryonic and adult, explains
Hasson. Embryonic cells come from the ‘surplus’ embryos of IVF treatments. They
are taken some 72 hours after the creation of a zygote, and are pluripotent.
That is, they have the ability to become all body cells except for those
forming the placenta or amniotic sac. Currently, these cells spontaneously develop
into specific organs. Hasson estimates that within a decade, scientists will
be able to determine which organs the cells will form.

Adult stem cells, found in the bone marrow, umbilical cord blood and
peripheral blood, are not associated with ethical issues. Allowing for the
regeneration of systems including blood vessels, fat tissue, cartilage, bone and
muscle, these cells, says Hasson “have enormous potential for different

Already, for decades, they have been used in skin grafts, and in treating
leukemia and lymphoma patients.

Holding that both types of stem cells have drawbacks and advantages,
Israel’s Consortium Bereshit is committed to their mutual development. The activity
of member companies runs the gamut of cell stem research:

Gamida-Cell works to expand, outside the body, the number of hematopoietic
(blood and lymph) stem cells for treatment of cancer and autoimmune diseases,
as well as for use in future regenerative cell-based medicines, including
heart and pancreatic tissue repair.

Proneuron Biotechnologies aims to develop and commercialize therapies for
different central nervous system (CNS) disorders. Proneuron is currently
focusing on a treatment for spinal cord injuries and other neurological disorders,
which until now were considered incurable.

Prochon Biotech Ltd. specializes in ex-vivo expansion of cells for use in
treating bone and cartilage disorders. Currently focused on finding a cure for
Achondroplasia, the most common form of short-limbed dwarfism, the company
develops biology-based products for tissue regeneration and growth.

M.G.V. Systems develops novel therapeutic modalities for cardiovascular
medicine based on gene and cell therapy. Using those cells that produce blood
vessels and genetically manipulating them, the company is developing vascular
grafts that will prevent graft failure, as well as modified cells that will
promote the production of new blood vessels that will bypass occluded arteries.

QUANTOMIX is commercializing its breakthrough technology, which enables
direct imaging of fully hydrated samples in an electron microscope. Its products
allow for the examination of cells and tissues without conventional
treatments such as drying, deep freezing and sectioning. This should pave the way to
improved understanding of biomedical processes, patient care and more
effective pharmaceutical research.

Other related companies, while not Consortium members, are also involved in
ground-breaking stem cell work. For example, BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics
develops solutions for terminal neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s
Disease, Multiple Sclerosis and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

Pluristem Life Systems Inc. expands the numbers of hematopoietic cells, thus
enabling treatment of adult patients who require bone marrow transplants,
but are unable to find compatible donors. To counter the problems involved in
organ transplants, Tissera Inc. is working on tissue transplantation
therapies based on an approach employing organ-specific precursor tissues.

How has Israel, a country the size of the smallest US states, risen to such
a position of prominence in this crucial field?

First of all, according to Hasson, Israel is disproportionately represented
in all the natural sciences. In many US universities, he says, the number of
Israeli graduate students in biology-related fields approaches that of their
colleagues from India and China, countries that have populations more than
200 times greater than Israel’s. In addition, he says, Israelis are
forward-thinking, and are attracted to the ‘hottest’ fields of science.

Perhaps most significant is the fact that ethical issues, which have curbed
stem cell research in the US and elsewhere, are muted in Israel. There is no
law regulating stem cell research in Israel, and use of embryos for such
research is allowed. In the US, embryonic stem cell research is a burning issue
that played a major role in the recent presidential election. As of 2001, US
President George W. Bush prohibited the federal financing of embryonic stem
cell research, although the authorization of such projects is left to the
discretion of each state.

These radically different approaches can be partially linked to different
religious beliefs.

In the view of Roman and Orthodox Catholics and many other Christians, human
beings come into existence with the fertilization of the ovum by the sperm.
Thus, as the earliest embryos are human, ending their lives is unthinkable –
even for therapeutic applications. IVF procedures, which routinely result in
‘surplus’ embryos that will never develop, are unacceptable. This prohibits
the very source of embryos for stem cell research.

Jewish Biblical and Talmudic Law holds that the embryo acquires full human
status only at birth. In connection to the pre-implantation embryo, Jewish Law
dictates that genetic materials outside the uterus have no legal status
since they are not part of a human being until implanted in the womb. Even in the
uterus, the embryo is considered a ‘formed’ human fetus only after the
first 40 days. And as the commandment to save lives is central to Judaism, the
creation of embryos by cloning for therapeutic purposes is justifiable.

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