Dr. Israel Vlodavsky, whose research has been funded periodically by ICRF, in his lab in Israel. Photo courtesy of the Israel Cancer Research Fund

Israeli researchers team up with City of Hope to fight cancer

For the past six months, the Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) has been collaborating with City of Hope in Duarte to advance understanding of cancer and further develop life-saving treatments and prevention strategies.

The Jacki and Bruce Barron Cancer Research Scholars Program at City of Hope has facilitated the exchange of resources, ideas and knowledge between ICRF’s cancer investigators — who are from four Israeli universities — and top researchers at City of Hope. The joint venture was made possible thanks to a $5 million grant from the Harvey L. Miller Family Foundation, which previously had separate philanthropic ties to both the ICRF and City of Hope.

“This relationship with City of Hope is validating for us,” said Eric Heffler, national executive director of ICRF. “It helps us raise awareness and continue on with our world-class research.”

Founded in 1975, ICRF has supported the work of numerous Nobel Prize winners responsible for milestone discoveries in cancer research. It has awarded more than 2,300 grants to investigators at 24 institutions throughout Israel. The New York-based nonprofit, with offices in six cities, including Los Angeles and Coachella Valley, aims to keep many of Israel’s premier scientists at home instead of having them globetrotting to secure research funding.

City of Hope is a pioneer in the fields of bone marrow transplantation, genetics, and independent research and treatment for cancer and diabetes.

The new program features four key initiatives:

• Three $150,000 collaborative grants awarded annually to support the research of City of Hope and Israeli scientists.

• Two post-doctoral fellowships at City of Hope for promising Israeli scientists selected by ICRF.

• Six-month sabbaticals for established Israeli scientists at City of Hope and for City of Hope researchers in Israel.

• An annual symposium for City of Hope and ICRF researchers to share findings.

The program’s first symposium is scheduled for November on City of Hope’s main campus. The symposium is expected to feature presentations from Israeli and American research partners who will be finishing the first year of their work together, a talk from an Israeli scientist who has been on sabbatical at City of Hope, and keynote addresses from high-profile cancer researchers.

Matthew Ruchin, associate director of administration for City of Hope’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, said both institutions initially were apprehensive about the distance separating their respective researchers.

“We expected to encounter obstacles with that,” Ruchin said. “But that hasn’t been the case.”

Ruchin said that in the past, faculty at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Lautenberg Center for Immunology and Cancer Research could not send massive data files over the internet or ship clinical research samples to City of Hope, and vice versa. Now, he said, “laboratories that are thousands of miles apart can feel like they’re right next door to each other.”

The partnership with ICRF is the only one City of Hope is engaged in that involves formal ties with medical institutions outside the United States. It has similar arrangements with Caltech and the UC Riverside faculty.

For Rob Densen, ICRF president, a central aim of the program is to showcase the ICRF’s mission to the Jewish community of Greater Los Angeles. On a trip to L.A. in early March, Densen told the Journal that many potential donors hadn’t even heard of the organization. He said he hoped to capitalize on the exposure a relationship with City of Hope — whose A-list celebrity support makes it widely known — could bring to ICRF.

“You have a tremendously diverse Jewish community in Los Angeles. You know the one thing they all share? Cancer. It cuts across geography, race, creed and religion,” Densen said. “I think [ICRF] is the perfect charity. It’s Israel and it’s cancer, the scourge of humankind.”

Densen also hopes that more awareness about ICRF will aid in Israel’s fight against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, as it demonstrates Israel’s impact on a matter of world concern.

“This is a stab right in the eye of BDS,” he said. “And it fits in perfectly with the theme of tikkun olam, repairing not just your neighborhood, your countr, or your religion, but repairing the entire world. That’s what animates my involvement here. Cancer research from Israel benefits everyone.”

Dr. Israel Vlodavsky, a professor in the Cancer and Vascular Biology Research Center at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, said his groundbreaking research on the curtailing of tumor growth has been funded periodically by ICRF since 1982 and consistently for the last 10 years. Vlodavsky, who traveled to Los Angeles in March with Heffler and Densen, said the partnership with City of Hope should play a key role in furthering ICRF’s efforts to fund Israel’s cancer researchers.

“This type of partnership will continue to allow ICRF to find promising young scientists during the most exciting time in cancer research,” Vlodavsky said.

Although both City of Hope and ICRF have reputations for producing results in cancer research, their collaborative efforts so far have not produced any major breakthroughs.

“Research is a funny thing,” Ruchin said. “It takes time for it to progress. We’ve only been at this for six months now, so we’re really focused on the building of relationships with colleagues in Israel. I’m more excited to see how things progress in the next three to four years.”

City of Hope: A match made in … Israel

When Joseph Mandel went to City of Hope in Duarte after his diagnosis with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) in 2009, he remembers his doctor giving him a very clear message: “If we don’t find you a donor — like, in a year — you might not be here.”

“I was praying every day that they would just find somebody,” said Mandel, 63, of Woodland Hills. “When I put on tefillin, I would always say, “Please HaShem, help me; find somebody for me.”

Somebody turned out to be Nevo Segal, an Israeli who signed up for the international Jewish bone marrow donor registry in 2006 when he enlisted in the Israeli army. Mandel, the son of a Holocaust survivor, finally had a chance to meet his donor on May 10 as part of the 37th annual Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion at City of Hope, a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Also meeting each other for the first time at the event were an 8-year-old boy and his 34-year-old British donor.  

For Segal, 25, who was raised in Ramat HaSharon but is currently studying in London, coming to Los Angeles to meet the man he saved in 2010 gave his role additional meaning.

“Until now, it was like a distant entity,” Segal said. “But when I heard that he survived, finally seeing him is great.”

After Mandel received the terrifying diagnosis in 2009, his family immediately began running bone marrow registration drives across Los Angeles at synagogues and churches, including at Stephen S. Wise Temple and the Chabad Jewish Student Center at USC. 

The five-year survival rate for AML is only about 25 percent, and Mandel has worked hard to make sure that he’s in that group. An avid outdoorsman, he minimized how much television he watched, exercised daily, lifted small weights and created a digital spreadsheet to keep track of the 35 medications he had to take while fighting leukemia. Although the risk of relapse is there — Mandel still has to regularly undergo blood tests — he has regained his strength and even recently went on a skiing trip with his family.

Because transplant recipients must be nearly identical matches with their donors, family members provide the best odds of being a match. But in Mandel’s case, there was no familial match. That meant that he had to rely on international bone marrow registries. The one that saved his life was Ezer Mizion, which has partnered with the Israeli army to collect genetic samples. 

Originally, the registry matched Mandel with Segal’s sister, Rachel, but Nevo was chosen later when it was discovered that he, too, was a perfect match and that he would be a better fit because he and Mandel were male.

Ann Mandel, who already had a husband and a daughter die of cancer, spoke about her son’s survival with a wide grin at the recent City of Hope event. She said that the day her family was notified that a match had been found, before anyone received a call, she had told her daughter that she felt good news was coming.

“I was very excited when he got the match,” she said.

Showing a group that gathered around her the strength that runs in the Mandel family, Ann Mandel rolled up her left sleeve to display the numbers tattooed on her arm from her imprisonment in the Auschwitz concentration camp. 

Today, even after the successful transplant, the Mandels continue to host bone marrow registration drives. One of Mandel’s daughters, Falicia, runs drives in her hometown of Washington, D.C. Signing up for the registry merely requires a cheek swab, and donating marrow can be as simple as donating blood.

For Joseph Mandel, the Israel connection is not restricted to the man who saved his life. His wife, Rachel, was born in Israel. They had planned to travel to Israel for their 30th anniversary in 2010; when that was canceled because of Mandel’s illness, they went in 2011 instead.

“Israelis always have each other’s back, no matter what,” Mandel said at the event that brought him together with Segal. “He had my back.”