October 17, 2018

California, Israel to partner on stem cell research

Doctors, dignitaries and officials representing Israel and California convened at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Feb. 8 to witness the signing of an agreement between Israel’s Ministry of Science and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) to collaborate on stem cell research. It follows a 2014 Memorandum of Understanding to promote collaboration and innovation between Israel and California.

“Stem cell research is a cutting-edge field full of promise and opportunity. Who better to forge new ground together than the State of Israel and the State of California?” Israeli Minister of Science, Technology and Space Ofir Akunis said. “Both are hotbeds of innovation, medical research and technological invention and have a strong commitment to science as a means to improve the lot of all humanity … and creating a brighter future for us all.”

Stem cells are cells in the body that have the ability to renew themselves. Some stem cells can form other cells that make up different types of tissues and organs in the body. As such, they can act as a repair system for the body, replenishing adult tissues. 

CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas said he was inspired to reach out to Israel after hearing Israeli stem cell scientists speak at City of Hope’s annual conference in November 2011. 

“If a scientist in Israel is working on something that another scientist in California is working on,” Thomas explained, “they can jointly propose to CIRM for funding, and if they pass peer review and are approved, they will be jointly funded by us for the California scientist and the government of Israel for the Israeli scientist. 

“Also,” he continued, “we are actively looking for projects from around the world to encourage them to develop a California nexus to what they’re doing. If there’s a project in Israel that requires multiple clinical trials, we could encourage them to come to Cedars and they could apply to CIRM for funding. That way, we help to develop the best projects.”

Although it is not specifically involved in the agreement, Cedars-Sinai “has made a major commitment to stem cell research,” Senior Vice President and Dean Shlomo Melmed said. “Our scientists have shown that stem cell technology can help reverse heart attack damage, the effects of macular degeneration, joint damage including osteoporosis-related fractures, and we’re about to embark on very promising early clinical trials for treating ALS.”

The therapy’s possibilities hit home when Julian A. Gold, Beverly Hills mayor and co-chair of Cedars-Sinai’s anesthesiology department, announced that he had a stem cell transplant nine years ago to treat leukemia. “I am standing here as evidence of the benefits of stem cells,” he said.

David Siegel, the American-born consul general of Israel to the U.S., talked about Israel’s history of success in stem cell research. “We are very well positioned to achieve breakthroughs very quickly and move very quickly on clinical trials therapies. With funding and through these partnerships with American companies, we can have quick FDA approval. For Israel, CIRM is like oxygen.”

The benefit will be mutual. “We will bring the minds and technology from Israel here. We’re creating jobs here in America,” said Israeli-American Council National Chairman Adam Milstein, whose organization aims to strengthen the bond between Israelis and Americans and “ensure Jewish and Israeli identity for future generations.” He also sees the stem cell agreement and others as a vital step in countering the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

“With this scientific and technical partnership showing the Israel behind the conflict to the world, we can fight BDS head-on,” he said, noting that other agreements are forthcoming in the areas of cybersecurity, biotech and water issues such as drought, a particular concern in California.

“Five years ago, very few people understood that Israel could be the key to solving the water problem in the world, and now because of these agreements, we have more visibility and more people are taking notice,” Siegel said, noting a growing interest in partnerships from other states, companies and academic institutions.

Akunis is setting his sights globally. “The beauty of Israel is high-tech innovation, and the cooperation will be not only with the United States and Europe but places like China, South Korea, Japan, India, Vietnam, all over the world,” he said. “We want to continue to lead the world in technology.” Public schools in Israel stress science and provide a tablet for every student.

For Israel, the benefits of international partnerships are vital. “These agreements are a way to put and keep Israel on the map in a very significant way, for our companies and for Israel’s ability to grow and protect itself,” Siegel said. “Israel is under political attack from our enemies and opponents around the world. One of the ways to fight that is by partnering with countries like the United States and states like California.”