Funding Israel-U.S. collaborations in science since 1972

Eleazar Eskin helps scientists understand the genetic basis of human disease. His field of expertise — bioinformatics — involves creating algorithms and software to analyze genetic data — data entailing huge numbers of permutations. 

Since 2013, the associate professor of computer science and human genetics at UCLA has been receiving money from a grant to work with Eran Halperin, an associate professor at Tel Aviv University involved in the same field. 

“This is one of my best collaborations,” Eskin said. “It’s not just the two of us working together — the … grant lets our groups work together as well. Some of my students have visited Israel and [Halperin’s] have come here. This has taken our collaboration to the next level.”

The joint effort is made possible by the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF), which promotes collaboration between American and Israeli researchers. The foundation was established in 1972, in an agreement signed by Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s ambassador to the United States at the time, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco. The BSF provides funding to research partnerships in such disciplines as physics, chemistry, biomedical science, behavioral science and computer science.

“The scope of BSF-generated papers and collaborations is staggering,” Eskin said. “It’s not that big of an organization, yet it has supported a huge amount of research and scientists.”

Since its inception, the BSF has awarded more than 5,000 research projects for a total of approximately $600 million — close to $16 million annually. California has among the highest number of recipients, with 151 currently active grants at institutions including Caltech, UCLA, USC, UC San Diego, UC Berkeley and Stanford. 

“The goals of the BSF are to promote collaborative research between U.S. and Israeli scientists in order to advance scientific progress and strengthen the ties between the two scientific communities,” Albert Teich, chairman of the BSF board of governors, said in an email. “Both countries stand to gain from this exchange of people and ideas.”

Based in Israel, the BSF is directed by a board of governors consisting of five American and five Israeli members, appointed by their respective governments. Funding comes from the annual interest earned on an endowment, to which both countries contribute to equally. (A similar fund for industrial research and development was founded in 1977, and one supporting agriculture was created in 1978.)  

Grants typically range between $150,000 and $200,000 and are paid over a period of two to four years. Applications undergo a rigorous peer-review process that involves scientists around the world. 

Forty-three researchers who received BSF funding have gone on to win Nobel Prizes. Professors Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Irwin Rose of UC Irvine received the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their joint discovery of the ubiquitin system for protein degradation, the mechanism by which the body disposes of dead and sick cells and replaces them with new ones. This research, which received five consecutive grants from the BSF beginning in 1979, helped spur development of Velcade, a drug used to treat bone cancer.  

The BSF focuses on basic research and young researchers. This approach is designed to assure “a pipeline of scientific talent for generations to come,” according to the foundation’s website.

“The BSF’s mission of supporting basic research is especially important to the development of science and technology, and, ultimately, to economic growth and human welfare,” said Teich, research professor of science, technology and international affairs at George Washington University. “Scientists often liken basic research to the ‘seed corn’ of science [because it] advances our understanding of nature and the physical and biological world. That understanding may not have immediate applications, but it can serve, often in unpredictable ways, as the knowledge base on which we draw for the solution of practical problems …” 

Governments, Teich said, may be reluctant to fund this type of research because its benefits may not be immediately obvious, might take a long time and are not guaranteed. BSF helps to fill this gap.

One example of BSF-funded basic research that led to a practical application involves the work of professors Shlomo Rozen of Tel Aviv University and Michael Welch of Washington University in St. Louis. They developed an isotope used for imaging with positron emission tomography (PET) — technology that was almost abandoned due to the lack of radioactive isotopes necessary for imaging. Rozen and Welch’s isotope was used for more than a decade.

Another project involves BSF-funded researchers Yariv Amnon of Caltech and Abraham Katzir of Tel Aviv University, who developed a sophisticated infrared optical fiber that helps land-based telescopes detect atmospheric characteristics of planets that are otherwise invisible to the human eye. NASA and the European Space Agency are using this technology to look for habitable planets outside our solar system.

Despite its successes, BSF has not seen an increase in its endowment since 1984, and the foundation is looking to collaborate with others wishing to fund specific projects.

The Los Angeles-based Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, for example, has partnered with BSF to supplement certain projects, including the collaboration between Eskin and Halperin. The BSF also initiated a series of joint funding programs with the National Science Foundation for projects involving chemistry, biology, brain research and computer science. 

“When the BSF was established in the 1970s, Israel was seen as the principal beneficiary of the relationship,” Teich said. “Today, as Israel has developed into a world power in science and technology, the connection to the U.S. is much more of a partnership, where both sides benefit and each learns from the other.” 

Looking good in those genes

Your day begins with a cup of joe, and to get through the afternoon, you’ll be gulping down a few more: There’s a gene for that. 

Caligenix, a genetics-based lifestyle company in Brentwood, can help people find out whether they have that caffeine-craving gene variation, along with many others that affect health and lifestyle. The company’s services are based on the science of nutritional genetics — how genes influence metabolism, diet, nutrition and response to exercise — and begin with a simple sample of saliva.

For some time now, scientists have been saying that the future of preventive health lies in knowing a person’s genetic makeup. After the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, many predicted that genetic testing would soon provide people with an accessible and reliable way to improve their health and lifestyle. But the ability to do so was still a long way off. 

But in May of last year, dentist Tzur Gabi and entrepreneur Eliad Josephson co-founded Caligenix, providing genetic testing, interpretation and recommendations through their network of providers, which includes registered dietitians and nutritionists, a holistic coach and a lifestyle coach. 

After collecting a sample of a client’s saliva, Caligenix sends it to a CLIA- and CAP-accredited clinical laboratory in San Diego, where it is tested for 78 genetic markers that impact metabolism.  

Within two to three weeks, the results are returned to Caligenix, where a provider interprets them, gleaning information like whether the client would benefit more from endurance training — such as mid- or long-distance walking, jogging or bicycling — or strength training; whether she is susceptible to Achilles tendon injuries, so she’ll know when and how to stretch; why he doesn’t feel satiated after a meal and has difficulty resisting dessert; and whether she is prone to particular vitamin deficiencies. After interpreting the genetic test, providers give the client actionable plans focused on nutrition and exercise. The cost to clients is between $495 and $995, depending on insurance coverage.

Gabi, Caligenix’s chief medical officer, likens genetic testing to a road map to the body. 

“Let’s say I asked you to drive to Tulsa, Okla. Wouldn’t you ask for a map? Or would you make your way without a guide?” Gabi said. “Genetic testing is the map I give my patients to get to Oklahoma.” 

Gabi’s dental practice is what he calls “genetically guided” — all of his patients receive the genetic test. His office has an in-house registered dietitian nutritionist, who develops a preventive genetic-based meal plan for each patient.

The test reveals how the body processes sugars, fats, nutrients and vitamins — all of which, Gabi said, play a role in dental health. 

“Low levels of vitamin C have been shown to be associated with an increased risk of periodontal disease, increased permeability of the oral mucosa to bacterial toxins [and] impaired immune response,” Gabi said.  

Vitamin C deficiency can ultimately lead to scurvy. The vitamin is also vital in forming the amino acids needed to produce collagen for bone formation and calcification to support the teeth, as well as for wound healing. 

“Deficiencies of protein, vitamin D or calcium may lead to the [resorption] of bone around the teeth and destruction of the periodontal ligaments that anchor the teeth to the jawbones,” Gabi said. “Women with severe osteoporosis are three times more likely to experience tooth loss.” 

Because an individual’s genes are present at birth and remain the same for their entire life, anyone can take the test at any time. 

Mor Levy, a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in lactation, believes that “in the ideal world, the test should happen when you are born.” Levy is a Caligenix provider who has a practice in Calabasas. 

The earlier you understand what is optimal for your body, Levy said, the more preventive action you can take. This knowledge might help parents, for example, understand the eating habits of a picky child or their sensitivity to lactose.

Levy starts by asking patients about their diet and exercise regimens. She also asks for as much of their own and their family’s medical history as they can provide. But there are often holes in this narrative, and even with a complete history, one can’t know whether a parent’s gene might be recessive in the next generation. Rather than rely on this incomplete information, Levy encourages testing, which takes the guesswork out of one’s genetic makeup. 

“Even if you do know your ancestry, that doesn’t mean you will have the gene that causes a heart attack,” Levy said.

But back to the question of coffee addiction. The gene linked to this is CYP1A2; a liver enzyme that is encoded by this gene is responsible for metabolizing caffeine. Variation at a marker for this gene results in different levels of enzyme activity and, therefore, different rates of metabolizing caffeine. 

“The test shows how quickly you metabolize caffeine,” Levy said. “If you metabolize it faster, this means your body will eliminate it quicker, thus you won’t stay caffeinated as long.” 

Caligenix’s plans for 2015 include continuing to spread awareness of the benefits of nutritional genetics through the company’s integration into many types of practices, including gyms, wellness centers and health care providers. They also offer genetic tests for the breast cancer susceptibility gene BRCA and other genetic diseases, but the primary focus is on genetic testing to improve healthy lifestyles.

“Right now, this is one more tool for [health] providers,” Josephson said. Genetic testing, he added, is “one more scientific tool to help them understand how to deal with an issue.” 

Cedars-Sinai to host symposium on inherited cancer risk

As a gynecologic oncologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in the late 1980s, Dr. Beth Karlan and her colleagues noticed that cancer seems to cluster in certain families. In 1991, they established the Gilda Radner Hereditary Cancer Program to investigate the role heredity plays in cancer.

A key discovery in 1994 shed light on the relationship between heredity and cancer: Mary-Claire King, a researcher at UC Berkeley, identified an alteration on a single gene that made people more susceptible to breast and ovarian cancers. King named the gene BRCA1, for breast cancer gene. Soon afterward, a second gene alteration associated with increased cancer risk was identified and given the name BRCA2.

Discovery of these genes constituted a “seismic change to the landscape of hereditary cancers,” said Karlan, now director of the Women’s Cancer Program at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Cedars. “[It gave us] an understanding and ability to focus on some of the ways these cancers are transmitted.”

To mark the 20-year anniversary of this discovery, the Women’s Cancer Program is hosting a symposium Sept. 13 exploring advances in screening, prevention and treatment of hereditary cancers. Presenters also will discuss some of the controversies around this issue, such as prophylactic measures for preventing cancer in individuals who have tested positive for a BRCA gene.

The symposium, titled “Advances in Care for the New Millennium,” will be held at the Sofitel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills. The first portion of the day is designed for physicians, geneticists, genetic counselors, nurses and other professionals whose work concerns BRCA-related cancers. 

A free afternoon session, “Strategies for Managing Hereditary Cancer Risk,” begins at 4 p.m. and is open to the public, though registration is required. It is geared toward those with an interest in the topic, such as people who carry or are related to a carrier of a BRCA mutation, those with a strong family history of hereditary breast or ovarian cancer, those seeking strategies for lowering cancer risk and detecting it earlier, and women considering prophylactic measures to limit cancer risk. 

BRCA gene mutations account for about 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancers and about 15 percent of all ovarian cancers. Ashkenazi Jews have a higher prevalence of BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations than the population at large.

Speakers at both portions of the symposium include Karlan; Dr. Steven A. Narod, director of the Familial Breast Cancer Research Unit of Women’s College Research Institute in Toronto; Dr. Judy E. Garber, director of the Cancer Genetics and Prevention Center at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston; and Dr. Sue Friedman, executive director of FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered).

Karlan, who is Jewish, says that the BRCA gene mutation will not manifest the same way in everyone. Researchers hope to untangle the environmental and genetic factors that determine why some carriers develop cancer and others don’t, and why those who do may develop different types of cancer. 

“There are also noncancer implications of BRCA genes,” Karlan told the Journal. “These mutations are present in every cell of the body.”

She urges women to know their family health history. 

“You can inherit the BRCA gene mutation from your mother or your father,” Karlan said. “Find out what runs in your family and see if genetic testing is appropriate for you. It could end up saving your life.”


“Strategies for Managing Hereditary Cancer Risk,” takes place Sept. 13, from 4-5:30 p.m. at Sofitel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills. Registration is required. Contact Fay Shapiro at (310) 423-5800 or To register for the afternoon public session, contact Fay Shapiro at (310) 423-5800 or

The Jewish connection to stem cell research

More than a decade ago, Silviu Itescu and Michael Schuster were conducting research in a laboratory at Columbia University and made a discovery involving a type of human stem cell that could be used to treat rats during a heart attack. 

The revolutionary finding demonstrated the power of the stem cell to help heal human medical conditions and led to the formation of Mesoblast, which identifies itself as the largest biotechnology regenerative medicine company in the industry. 

“It was clear that there was a major opportunity based on results we found, and it was also clear that if we wanted to take stem cells to clinical development, it would have to be done outside the research and academic environment,” Itescu, the company’s CEO, told the Journal during a visit to Los Angeles last month. 

The child of Holocaust survivors who fled communist Romania with him to Australia in 1965 to escape anti-Semitism, Itescu has been working with his colleagues on a medicinal product targeting major therapeutic areas such as cardiovascular, orthopedic, oncological and autoimmune systems. They are focusing on spinal diseases and working on bone marrow transplant results. 

Stem cells are unspecialized cells that can renew themselves through cell division; they also can become tissue- or organ-specific cells with special functions, according to the National Institutes of Health.

This allows them to help regenerate systems that have become dysfunctional, such as the back or the heart. The product and dosage for each area is different, as there is no uniform formula for the problematic parts. 

“It’s a broad spectrum [we’re covering]. It’s based on understanding the capabilities of our technology, based on understanding how our technology targets different disease stages and understanding where the unmet needs are in those diseases, so [we can] offer a unique benefit that goes over and above what else is out there,” Itescu said.

The Food and Drug Administration requires approval for each phase of clinical trials in order to move forward with the execution process for the stem cell drugs Mesoblast is creating. The company was approved for Phase 2 studies earlier this year, with clinical trials in the United States for treatment based on mesenchymal precursor cells. The next step is to get approval for Phase 3, in which clinical trials would take place in the U.S. and abroad. 

Steven Peckman, associate director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA, said the possibilities with stem cell research are exciting.

“Stem cells can have a dramatic impact on society,” he said. “If you could develop stem cell treatment that would cure cancer or HIV or [be] able to regenerate a healthy heart from a damaged heart, I’d say you’d have an incredible impact. It has the potential to change the practice of medicine where we use the body’s own cells to cure and treat disease.” 

When Mesoblast was first getting started in the post-Sept. 11 world, Itescu said it was difficult to get venture capital funding in the United States. He added that the U.S. was “really in a very negative situation for innovative, new things,” resulting in the company’s debut in Australia. 

The initial clinical data allowed Mesoblast to bring in commercial and pharmaceutical partners, which helped raise more capital to strengthen its capabilities. One of its biggest partners is Teva, an Israeli pharmaceutical company focused on neurological diseases.

“It happened for commercial reasons because it made commercial sense,” Itescu said of the partnership. “As a Jew, I certainly am pleased and have an affinity for a strong, commercially focused Israeli company, but first and foremost is their real expertise in real neurological disease.” 

Other partners are in the United States and abroad, including some in Singapore and Japan. 

“We’ve matured and grown, we’ve had to change culture in the company, so we’re no longer a small startup,” Itescu said. “We still have to be fairly hungry and innovative, but we’ve got to have more experience [and] executional ability.”

Mesoblast’s work has garnered Itescu invitations to speak at conferences across the globe. Last month, he participated in the Israstem conference in Israel for research on stem cell therapy and then attended the Goldman Sachs Global Healthcare Conference in Orange County. 

Itescu has been recognized for his achievements, including receiving the inaugural Key Innovation award from the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Stem for Life Foundation in Vatican City in April 2013.

Mesoblast has remained an Australian public company, with its footprint in the United States. At around 120 employees — more than two-thirds of them in the U.S. — they have $240 million in the bank “to do real programs,” Itescu said. 

For the past 10 years, Mesoblast has kept the same goal: taking a technology believed to have the opportunity to create new medicines with a completely different mode of action, according to Itescu, to meet the needs that available drugs cannot. 

“We’re almost there. We’re at the finish line,” Itescu said. 

Over the next couple of years, he said, Mesoblast hopes to be the first company to launch a stem cell product on the American market. 

“We’re very close,” Itescu said. “But we’ll get there.”

Genetic research can open book on Jewish identity — for good and bad

Father William Sanchez wears a Star of David pendant on the same chain as his crucifix, and he keeps a menorah in his parish office. After a DNA test confirmed his Sephardic roots, the Albuquerque priest has been actively reconciling this discovery with his Catholic beliefs.

“Knowledge of my Jewish ancestry has provoked me to question things, yes,” Sanchez says in the book, “Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People” by Jon Entine (Grand Central, 2007).

Looking back over his childhood in New Mexico, Sanchez now recognizes the Jewish signs: his parents shunning pork, spinning tops during Christmas and covering the mirrors at home if someone in the family died.

For Crypto-Jews like Sanchez, DNA testing services can confirm or disprove suspicions about a hidden Jewish family history, uncover unknown genetic disease risks or inspire greater exploration of Judaism. For small populations in Africa and Asia, genetic research has shed light on claims of Jewish ancestry and provided a better understanding of Jewish migration over thousands of years.

But critics fear that Jewish genetic research also opens a Pandora’s box. The discovery of a shared genetic marker among men who claim to be descended from Kohanim grew into wild, exaggerated claims in the media that geneticists had confirmed the story of Aaron. Some have decried research exploring a genetic basis for Ashkenazi intelligence as politically incorrect and racist, since all humans are 99.9 percent similar.

Entine, who will be speaking at Adat Chaverim and Brandeis-Bardin this weekend, believes exploring that .1 percent is worth getting researchers riled up.

An American Enterprise Institute fellow and former NBC news producer, Entine is no stranger to controversy. He tackled the topic of race in sports with “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It” (PublicAffairs Books, 1999), which was lauded by Scientific American as a “well-researched, relatively thorough and lucidly written case.”

After “Taboo” was published, Entine learned his sister had breast cancer. As a teenager, he had lost his mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer over a period of three years. The family assumed it was a coincidence at the time, but recent genetic testing revealed the BRCA2 genetic mutation contributed to his sister’s cancer.

Since Entine has a young daughter, he decided to undergo testing, which confirmed he carries the mutation. The experience inspired him to research the link between Jews and DNA.

The result is “Abraham’s Children,” a survey of Jewish genetic research paired with a chronicle of Jewish history that explores the thorny question: “Who is a Jew?”

Entine writes that Jewishness is a function of religion and ancestry, shaped by faith, politics and culture. Given the Jewish community’s historically insular nature, most Jews also share genetic markers, which speaks to common ancestors.

This commonality inspired research in the 1990s that found the Cohen Modal Haplotype, a set of six identical genetic markers shared among Ashkenazic and Sephardic Kohanim, passed from father to son on the Y chromosome, which doesn’t change much over time and may have originated with a common ancestor. While the genetic markers alone do not prove the existence of Aaron, they can be seen to confirm a biblical tradition.

The haplotype, however, is also not unique to Jews — Kurds, Armenians, southern and central Italians share these same markers but to a lesser extent.

Researcher tracing Jewish genes meets the Kohanim of Africa [VIDEO]

Dr. David B. Goldstein from Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy talks about tracking the genetic history of the ancient Jewish priesthood (kohanim) and the Lost Tribe of Israel, the focus of his new book, “Jacob’s Legacy”.

For many people, genetics research conjures up frightening notions of racial or religious superiority — or the possibility of genetic discrimination. David B. Goldstein isn’t worried about either of these things.

“I take the view that there isn’t anything to be afraid of in our genetic makeups. So I really think that it’s interesting, fascinating even, sometimes important, but there isn’t anything scary lurking there,” said Goldstein, a professor of molecular genetics and the director of Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy’s Center for Population Genomics &Pharmacogenetics.

Goldstein, 44, even applies his open-research policy to a scientific study a few years ago that linked genetic diseases to intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews. He calls that work “speculative,” but he doesn’t rule out research into the issue.

“That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to be really careful in how you present what’s been done,” he said. “I think you do, and I think we’ve seen mistakes in how work is presented. I think it’s really reckless to overstate results. But I don’t think there are any areas that are unwise to investigate, because I’m just not afraid of what we’re going to find.”

In “Jacob’s Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History,” recently published by Yale University Press, Goldstein uses the latest genetic methods — including genetic mapping and advanced DNA testing — to illuminate compelling issues in Jewish history like the biblical priesthood, the Lost Tribes, Jewish migration, and Jewish genetic diseases.

Goldstein’s most startling finding: There are enough Y chromosome similarities among many who call themselves descendants of the Cohanim, the biblical priestly caste, to argue for genetic Cohen continuity.

He and his colleagues tested these similarities by comparing the Y chromosomes of Cohanim with the chromosomes of other Jews. Sure enough, the majority of the self-identified Cohanim, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews, had the same type of Y chromosome. Further testing by Goldstein and friends leads him to estimate that the Cohanim were founded before the Roman era — and perhaps before the Babylonian conquest in the sixth century B.C.E.

Even Goldstein was blown away.

“The apparent continuity of the Cohen Y chromosome was an out-and-out stunner; I would have never predicted that to be the case,” he said.

He also finds genetic evidence for the idea that the Lemba tribe in Africa might have some Jewish origins, a finding that the media simplified by saying he had shown the Lemba are one of Judaism’s 10 Lost Tribes.

In the section on the Lemba, and indeed throughout the book, Goldstein is careful about his conclusions. For him, the research is more about shedding light on themes of Jewish history, such as exile and Diaspora. As he puts it in the book, “What makes a people a people? What binds them together through time? What alienates them from some and aligns them to others?”

As admirable as the book’s scholarship is its readability. Goldstein’s jargon-free writing and sense of humor courts readers who are not hard-core scientists. At different points in the book, he calls himself a “lousy mathematician” and as “having a bit of the gambler in my genes,” and, in the section about the alleged link between genetic diseases and intelligence, he writes, “Now we geneticists have a genuine kerfuffle on our hands.”

Don’t be misled — Goldstein’s book isn’t “Jewish Genetics for Dummies.” But he has taken cutting-edge science and made it accessible to the general reader willing to make an effort.

It wasn’t easy, admitted Goldstein, whose academic work focuses on medical genetics — specifically, why some people control HIV better than other people and why some people respond better to some medicines than other people.

“I started writing this just about 10 years ago. The discussions of the science were dreadful, incomprehensible. And so I just tried it again and again until I found ways that worked and that people didn’t complain about when I showed it to them.”

Part of the motivation for the book, Goldstein says, stems from guilt he feels because he remained in graduate school at Stanford and didn’t go to Israel when the 1991 Gulf War broke out.

“I did feel like I should do something. And I think doing some work eventually at least gave me some kind of connection to read about Jewish history as part of my job, and that definitely made me feel better. I guess I finally got over it and started going to Israel regularly, which I still do.”

He’s frank about the limitations of genetic history. “[G]enetics can never, however, replace, or even compete with, the painstaking work of archaeology, philology, linguistics, paleobotany and the many other disciplines that have helped resurrect some of the lost stories of human history,” Goldstein writes.

Understandably, though, he’s proud that his research has yielded some insight into some vexing issues, and shares the notion that what he is doing on some issues — say, the Cohanim — borders on the fantastic.

“The continuity of the Cohen paternal line is an astounding thing,” he said. “And it’s a little tiny bit of history that genetics tells you about.”

Peter Ephross’ articles and reviews have appeared in the Village Voice, the Forward and Publishers Weekly, among other publications.

VIDEO: Duke professor searches for ‘kohanim’ genetic marker

Dr. David B. Goldstein from Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy talks about tracking the genetic history of the ancient Jewish priesthood (kohanim) and the Lost Tribe of Israel, the focus of his news book, “Jacob’s Legacy”.

Gene test kits — can they lead to dating services?

A company called launched recently and got wads of media attention for being the first user-friendly Web site devoted to home genomics tests and analysis. For just $1,000, the company will take a swab of your cheek, sequence your genome and tell you a bunch of things about how you fit into the family of humanity. It will also allegedly give you nifty details about yourself, such as whether you have athletic abilities or a propensity for disease.

And 23andme is just the beginning. Another company called DeCode offers a similar service called DeCodeMe, and more are sure to follow. People are desperate to understand themselves, and so they turn to genetics as if it were a self-help manual instead of a still poorly understood science.

While there are many theories about how genetic expression works on our personalities and health, there are few solid facts. Some tests, such as those for various kinds of developmental disabilities, have provable results. But many genetic tests, like those 23andme claim can reveal “athletic ability,” are the biotech version of snake oil.

The question I keep asking about home genomics kits is whether they’re any worse than, say, parts of the self-help industry. Both promise to fix people by making vague pronouncements based on a little science mixed with a lot of rank speculation.

Both do help people figure themselves out some of the time. And both are often quite costly — therapy can go for hundreds of dollars an hour and so can self-help classes.

I’m wondering, essentially, if there’s something exploitative about the services sold by 23andme. Probably not — or no more so than the chocolate sold by Godiva, which is also shockingly expensive and basically useless. If people want to pony up the cash to have a little fun, why not?

But I don’t think it is just a little fun, like chocolate or “find the inner you” classes are. What I see when I look at a site like 23andme is nothing less than the future of eugenics. I don’t mean the scary capital E eugenics of the 1930s that involved killing Jews and sterilizing “loose women.” I mean wild-type eugenics, the kind of genetic engineering that happens in nature without any dictatorial intervention.

It’s the sort of eugenics that results when people of the same race and class tend to marry each other. It’s the genetic engineering that results when men can choose their mates but women can’t.

23andme and Web sites of its ilk are just one step away from becoming social networks based on genetics, like Facebook for people who want to compare genes instead of beer bongs. Currently that’s not what 23andme is trying to be, though it does offer users the chance to compare their genomes with those of the general population.

But you can bet that once these companies amass tons of genetic data, they’re going to want to do something with it. After they sell it to insurance companies — which will use the information to charge higher rates to people with “bad” genes — they’ll sell it back to users in the form of social networks.

Or the users themselves will post their data for all to see, the same way they already cluelessly post pictures of themselves passed out naked on MySpace. And out of that data will arise the first dating service based on genome compatibility. And what is genome compatibility but eugenics?

While newspaper stories about the new personalized genomics services trumpet the arrival of the future, I see nothing but the past. This isn’t science for the masses; it’s not enlightenment. It’s just the same old stuff dressed up in the language of modern biology and tricked out with a zoomy Javascript interface.

And I do think it’s worse than self-help, which is sometimes good for you. It’s worse than Godiva chocolate, which is at least tasty. Home genome kits, at this point in time, are likely to confuse people at best and confirm their prejudices at worst.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t buy these kits or that they won’t be useful one day, when we understand our genomes better. I’m just saying we shouldn’t use them to understand our places in society. Certainly we shouldn’t use them to find genetically compatible friends. But I’m pretty sure we will.

Annalee Newitz is a contributing editor at Wired magazine. Her forthcoming book, “Pretend We’re Dead” (Duke University Press), is about monster movies and capitalism.

Many With Gaucher Unaware of Disease

When Jewish New Yorker Joan La Belle, now 70-something, was in her mid-20s, she began to experience scary symptoms, suggesting a serious health problem: “I felt exhausted, had rough menstrual periods with very heavy bleeding and terrible nose bleeds.”

She also suffered substantial hemorrhaging in childbirth, she said in a recent telephone interview from Minneapolis, where she has been a longtime resident.

Hemorrhaging and an enlarged spleen — another of her symptoms — are often misdiagnosed as leukemia, and bone pain is often mistaken for arthritis, so La Belle said that she really didn’t know the actual cause of her symptoms for years.

Finally, 15 or 20 years ago, a Jewish physician filling in for her regular internist correctly recognized her enlarged spleen as an indicator of Gaucher (pronounced go-SHAY) disease, to which Jews are especially susceptible.

Gaucher is sufficiently rare that many doctors weren’t and still aren’t aware of it. And when LaBelle was diagnosed, “they were just doing research, and there was not a glimmer of hope” for a treatment, she said

But then, medical researchers produced the enzyme regimen that LaBelle needed, and for the last 12 or 13 years, she has received regular infusions that have dramatically improved her life, she said. These enzyme treatments completely control her symptoms, LaBelle reported.

“Prior to the [enzyme therapy], I used to have hemorrhaging and my hemoglobin was very low,” she said. “But, now it’s normal.”

LaBelle receives intravenous infusions of the latest formulation of the enzyme, called Cerezyme, at a local Minneapolis hospital every other week. It takes 60 to 75 minutes, she said. The length of time per patient varies, depending on the number of units a patient needs.

LaBelle said “every couple of months” she has a “bone crisis,” which is an event of intense pain that occurs because of a sudden lack of oxygen in an area where Gaucher-affected cells have interfered with normal blood flow. The episode can last for hours or days. She said she treats the pain with medication.

Based on statistical probability, half of the Gaucher patients at the Lysosomal Diseases Treatment Center at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin should be of Ashkenazi (Central and Eastern European) Jewish heritage.

In fact, however, only one of the eight Gaucher patients, though not Jewish, believes he has Ashkenazi ancestry. The reason could be the lack of knowledge about the disease, said genetic counselor Amy White, who works at the Lysosomal Diseases Treatment Center.

This means that many people who are at risk or suffering have not been diagnosed or treated. The disease is not thought to be life threatening, but it’s chronic and painful and doctors frequently mistake the symptoms for something else. However, even when it’s recognized, treatment remains extremely expensive.

The undiagnosed cases are probably due to “a lack of awareness among both medical and lay communities,” according to the National Gaucher Foundation (NGF).

So this year for the first time, the NGF designated a “National Gaucher Disease Awareness Month” in the hope of educating health-care providers and the public about the importance of recognizing the signs and symptoms of the disease. The results of this effort, which took place in September, are not conclusive, but researchers and advocates especially wanted to reach the Jewish community, where this often painful and debilitating — but highly treatable — disease is most prevalent.

According to the National Gaucher Foundation, Gaucher disease occurs when a person inherits a mutated gene from both parents, but if the person inherits a mutated gene from one parent and a normal gene from the other parent, he or she will not have the disease but may be a carrier. A carrier may pass the gene on to the next generation, depending on the genetic makeup of the person he or she marries.

White said that the Lysosomal Treatment Center has a lot to offer Gaucher patients, in addition to the life-changing Cerezyme infusions. Despite being located in Children’s Hospital, the genetics center, headed by Dr. William J. Rhead, chief of the generics department, does not limit its services to children.

“We see any individual or family who has a genetic condition,” White said. “We provide an initial evaluation and make recommendations as to specialists in Gaucher disease.”

The center also provides semiannual or annual evaluations of the course of a patient’s disease, as well as its treatment. It takes X-rays, does bone MRIs and CTs of the liver and spleen and conducts specialized blood tests for Gaucher Disease markers. These tell a patient how the disease is progressing and whether the Cerezyme dosage is adequate.

In addition, the center provides genetic counseling to couples contemplating pregnancy, as well as to expectant parents. It also counsels patients and their families on the psychosocial aspects of the disease.

The genetics center can assist Gaucher patients with medical insurance issues, an important service because of the cost of Cerezyme.

A version of this article was first published in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.



” class=”boldbluelinklmenu”>Lack of One Enzyme Triggers Illness

You Are What You Eat


I am a vegetarian. I know there was a big controversy brewing over kosher meat, but I’m not sure what the Jewish position

on vegetarianism is. I suppose as long as the vegetables are pulled from the ground in a quick and humane manner, no one can object too strenuously to it. I know God created animals, but I can’t imagine He’d be offended if I didn’t eat them. I’d hate to think of God pouting in His room saying, between sobs, “I worked so hard on that lamb and Nemetz doesn’t even touch it!”

People usually become vegetarians for either health concerns or humane reasons. It is, in theory, healthier to eat lower down on the food chain. Foods are more easily digestible (with the notable exception of my mother’s potato kugel, some of which has been lodged in my small intestine since the Thursday before my bar mitzvah). The problem with doing anything for health reasons is that you’re just staving off the inevitable — like carrying an umbrella in a meteor shower. It may slow the meteor down a tad, but not enough to change your ultimate destiny.

As for the inhumanity of eating animals, while I applaud the sentiment, I think it is a somewhat misplaced compassion — like the anti-abortionists who value the fetus but have no problem killing the abortion doctor. All one needs do is turn on the National Geographic channel to see that, out in the wild, fast eats slow and big eats little — although for some unknown reason, nothing eats the guy holding the camera. If I ever go on safari, I’m renting a Betacam.

I have chosen to eschew meat for a third, more self-obsessed reason — it’s annoying to those around me. You know how some people say that they don’t want to be a bother? Not me. I love being a bother. It really puts people out when they want — or feel obligated to — have me over for dinner (I’ll accept either; a meal’s a meal).

Upon learning of my restrictive diet, the host or hostess will invariably ask me the same question, “Do you eat fish?” Now I’m not a biologist (although I was a genetics major my first year in college — until my grades came out, at which point the university and I agreed that I should pursue a degree in English), but it seems to me that fish hardly qualify as a vegetable. They’re living things. Granted they don’t have much of a life, but then neither did my Uncle Alec. In fact, he would have loved nothing more than to swim around in circles all day, hiding in fake rocks. He wasn’t what you’d call an overachiever — or even an achiever.

Now, as vegetarians go, I’m not that difficult to please. Aside from a major food group, I will eat pretty much anything. There is another, stricter level of vegetarianism. They are called vegans and they consume no animal products whatsoever. There is even a small sect of vegans — I don’t like to use the word fanatical because fanatics tend to get, well, fanatical when you use that word (go figure) — who are so concerned with not taking any life whatsoever that they walk down the street with brooms, sweeping ants out of their paths lest they crush the poor vermin and take a life. The fact that they sweep the critters onto the road into oncoming traffic seems lost on these well-meaning souls. It is this line of flawed thinking that gave us the leaf blower — it doesn’t eliminate the leaf but it does blow it onto your neighbor’s property where it’s no longer your problem.

I find, however, that while familiarity usually breeds contempt, in my case it breeds indifference. The more often I go to someone’s house for dinner, the less effect I have on his or her diet. At first, everyone eats a vegetarian meal because of me. After a while, the host makes a vegetarian meal with a dish for others to eat. Finally, I’m invited to a meat meal with a dish that I can eat. I can see the writing on the wall. Next I’ll be asked to eat something before I come over. Well, I’m not going to wait for that to happen. I’m going to get new friends. That’s why I’m asking you out there to invite me to dinner. I’m willing to go as far as Calabasas. Just remember, I don’t eat fish.

Howard Nemetz is almost as good looking as his picture.


Alcohol Dependency Not in Our Genes

A new study suggests that genes, not religion, may help explain why Jews generally have fewer problems with alcohol than Caucasians in general do.

The study findings, which appeared in an issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, also suggest that the protective effects of this gene may be undermined by a culture that encourages drinking.

The gene, ADH2*2 is a rare variation of ADH2, which produces a more active form of alcohol dehydrogenase, the enzyme that catalyzes the first step in alcohol metabolism. However, explained lead author Deborah Hasin from Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, “the exact reason why ADH2*2 tends to discourage heavier drinking isn’t known.”

“Recently, reports have shown a relatively high prevalence [approximately 20 percent] of ADH2*2 in Jewish samples … suggesting that ADH2*2 is one of the factors explaining the low rates of alcoholism in this group,” Hasin noted.

Earlier research has shown that differences in religious practice and level of religiosity cannot account for these low rates.

Indeed, recent investigations have demonstrated “significant relationships between ADH2*2 and alcohol use … in all Jewish groups studied,” Hasin reported. Those with the variant gene have been seen to drink less frequently, consume less alcohol overall or have more unpleasant reactions to alcohol. Until the present study, however, the relationship between ADH2*2 and level of dependence on alcohol was not explored.

Hasin and her colleagues recruited 75 Israeli Jews ages 22-65. Trained interviewers employed a widely used questionnaire to assess each participant’s current, past and lifetime level of alcohol dependence. Sixty-eight of the participants provided genetic material to test for the presence of ADH2*2.

The results revealed that participants with ADH2*2 had significantly lower indicators of alcohol dependence over their lifetimes.

“This finding adds to the growing body of evidence that this genetic variation has a protective effect against alcoholism among Jewish groups,” Hasin said.

When the researchers divided the participants into three groups based on country of origin and recency of immigration, however, they found indications that the protective effect of ADH2*2 was not equally strong in every group.

The protective effect of ADH2*2 on alcohol dependence severity appeared stronger among the two more established groups of Israeli Jews, the Ashkenazis (those of European background and arrivals from Russia before 1989) and the Sephardics (those of Middle Eastern and North African background), than among more recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Among those with ADH2*2, the recent Russian immigrants tended to have a history of much heavier drinking than their Sephardic and Ashkenazic counterparts. Levels of past and lifetime alcohol dependency — but not current dependency — were also highest among the recent Russian immigrants.

According to Hasin, one logical explanation for these findings is the fact that both genes and environment influence the development of alcohol dependence.

“Russia has one of the world’s highest levels of alcohol consumption,” she noted, “whereas Israel has one of the lowest.”

“The study’s findings suggest that the recent Russian immigrants’ previous exposure to the heavy-drinking environment of Russian culture overcame the protective effects of the ADH2*2 gene,” Hasin said.

Their increased vulnerability to heavy drinking was evidenced by such study measures as peak lifetime alcohol consumption levels.

The decrease in the recent arrivals’ alcohol intake and dependency levels after immigration may reflect “acculturation to Israeli drinking patterns,” Hasin proposed.

“However,” she added, “other explanations, including a tendency to drink less as we age, cannot be ruled out.”

Funding for the study came in part from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Muscular Disorder Won’t Stop Siblings

As young adults, brothers Babak and Daniel Darvish, born less than two years apart, were avid athletes, music lovers and medical students who planned to become surgeons. But about five years ago, they discovered that they shared something besides their hobbies and professional aspirations. Both were diagnosed with hereditary inclusion body myopathy (HIBM), a rare muscular disorder experienced by only about 500 individuals worldwide.

Babak first detected something amiss as a third-year medical student. "I was an avid guitar player … and realized I was having progressively more difficulty [playing]." Around the same time, Daniel, by then doing his medical residency, noticed he wasn’t running and bounding up the hospital steps as quickly as usual.

Putting their knowledge to work, the brothers searched the medical literature and finally discovered a few research papers that seemed to describe their condition. HIBM, they learned, typically strikes in the 20s or 30s, gradually weakens the muscles of the limbs and eventually leads to total disability. The disease predominantly affects Iranian Jews, who have a 5 percent to 10 percent chance of carrying the gene mutation responsible for HIBM. Still, even if both parents carry the gene, their children have a 75 percent chance of eluding the disease.

Once they realized what they were facing, the brothers traveled to Israel with blood samples in hand to meet with professor Zohar Argov and Dr. Stella Mitrani-Rosenbaum. The Israeli researchers were among the few scientists investigating this condition. (They subsequently identified the gene that causes HIBM last year.)

Babak and Daniel returned home determined to generate support for research on HIBM. The two spoke extensively at Hadassah events and other venues to raise funds and awareness within the Iranian community. They were among the few willing to put a face to a disease that many preferred to keep under wraps. At the same time, they began to contact and catalogue those who had HIBM, or seemed to exhibit symptoms. Their efforts generated visibility and financial support, but a research breakthrough remained elusive.

"The daunting limitations that threatened scientific progress became apparent," Babak noted. "There were not enough patients known to provide blood samples for research. There was inadequate awareness of the disease, and due to its small target population, little to no interest in the wider general and medical communities…. This was an orphan disease, in an orphan community."

Frustrated with the lack of progress toward a cure, the Darvish brothers decided to step up their own activities. In 1997, they joined with the Iranian Jewish Federation (IJF) to found Advancement of Research for Myopathies (ARM.), a nonprofit entity dedicated to raising funds and providing grants to promising research around the globe. ARM subsequently broke off from IJF. Photographer Mansour Pouretehad currently serves as ARM’s president and is also a major benefactor. In addition, last year the Darvishes created the HIBM Laboratory. Located in an Encino medical building, the lab collects and analyzes blood samples and acts as a clearinghouse for HIBM research. As Daniel explains, "Our goal is to get to clinical trials — and ultimately, treatment — as soon as possible."

Although Daniel said the laboratory performs "ancillary research," he and his colleagues have discovered four previously unknown genetic mutations that cause HIBM. Their findings were published in this month’s issue of the scientific publication Molecular Genetics and Metabolism.

Meanwhile, ARM, has awarded more than $270,000 in grants so far this year to researchers at UC San Diego, USC and Hadassah Hospital in Israel.

Living with HIBM derailed the Darvish brothers’ plans to become surgeons, but set them in new career directions. Babak, who is now married, works in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center. Daniel changed his specialty to internal medicine, and now devotes all his time to running the HIBM lab.

"We don’t know who is next," Babak said. "There are people in their teenage years that have no clue what’s in store for them…. People need to have a sense of urgency and feel that this [cause] belongs to our community and really work as a team toward finding a cure."

The Art of the Matter

When artist Ted Meyer was first diagnosed with Gaucher disease, a lipid-storage disorder that is the most common genetic disease affecting Jews of Eastern European descent, he used his artistic talents to express his pain.

Now fully recovered due to breakthroughs in treatment, the 44-year-old, who is also a designer, illustrator and the author of two books, reflects on the progression of his work in relation to the course of his illness.

In October, Meyer’s two exhibits, “Structural Abnormalities” and “Scars” will be on display at the Biola University Art Gallery in La Mirada. The artist began the former series about 10 years ago when his illness was in full swing. Gaucher disease, caused by a genetic mutation, primarily consists of bone pain and damage to the shoulder or hip joints as a result of an enzyme deficiency. Meyer had a hip replacement and will undergo another this November, although he is now healthy and receives enzyme replacement every two weeks.

Although his illness has been compared to Tay-Sachs because of its association with Jews, Meyer doesn’t relate Gaucher disease to his religion. “It doesn’t come into play because African Americans have Tay-Sachs. I just see it as evolution,” said Meyer, who said he feels “culturally Jewish, but not religiously Jewish.”

“Structural Abnormalities” depicts images of skeletons crouching and kneeling, as if locked inside the boundaries of the canvas. “I started the skeleton paintings about six months before I had my first hip replacement done. I was at the point where I couldn’t walk very well and I felt very trapped in my own body,” explained the New York native. “So, I started these contorted, painful skeletal images. Many of them are sort of compressed, which is how I felt.” As his symptoms subsided, the figures in the series became rounder and fuller than the earlier works. Most of them also include more than one person, symbolizing the end of his own isolation.

“I started bringing in the outside world,” Meyer said. “I was healthy and I wanted to be excited about that.” Several paintings from “Structural Abnormalities” were included in the high-profile “eMotion Pictures” exhibit, which toured the Chicago Cultural Center, the United Nations and is currently continuing its U.S. tour.

Meyer’s second series, “Scars,” was inspired by a woman he dated who had an 18-inch scar from when she broke her back and, as a result, was wheelchair bound. “I would see her back at night as we slept,” he remembered. “I liked the shape of the scar.” Meyer felt the visible memory of the wound revealed his friend’s strength and uniqueness. He took an imprint of the scar and then created a painting, which he felt was, in essence, a portrait of the woman herself. “It really marked where her life had changed,” he said.

Meyer’s girlfriend encouraged him to reach out to others, as she was very active in the disabled community. “She really got on my case and felt that I lost touch with my psyche because I was now healthy and I wasn’t relating.” Meyer first displayed his new piece in the Art Walk, an exhibit at Brewery, the world’s largest artist complex, located in Los Angeles, which he has called home for the last five years. People were fascinated by the piece and even approached him with their own scars and the stories behind them. From there, Meyer began a collection of the scar paintings.

While he admits that his work doesn’t appeal to everyone, many art enthusiasts feel the paintings are very powerful. For those who have had surgery, viewing Meyer’s work can be cathartic.

“I’ve had people come to the studio and just break out crying,” Meyer said. “That’s what every artist wants: To resonate with people.” The upcoming exhibit will include 16 pieces from the series.

As for the scar bearers, the experience of seeing reminders of their past pain transferred to the canvas has been a positive one: “Many people say, ‘I never thought anything good could come from this scar and now it’s going to be art,'” Meyer said.

As his work progressed over the years, he feels he’s able to reach out to others in a way he was once unable. “My artwork has gone from being very ‘Ted-centric’ to being about everyone else.”

Ted Meyer’s exhibits can be seen at Biola University Art
Gallery, 13800 Biola Ave., La Mirada, Oct. 7-27; 9 a.m.-9 p.m. (Monday-Friday),
noon-5 p.m. (Saturday). Meyer will be at the gallery Oct. 8 from 6-9 p.m. For
more information, call (562) 903-4807. For more on Meyer’s artwork, visit .

The Cost of Boycott

For some time, Dr. Eitan Galun, the head of Hadassah Medical Organization’s Goldyne Savad Gene Therapy Institute, has been engaged in research to cure a genetic disease prevalent in the Palestinian community. He recently requested genetic material from a Norwegian scientist and was refused. "Due to the present situation in the Middle East, I will not deliver any material to an Israelitic (sic) university," she responded by e-mail. With this statement, she engaged in nothing less than a boycott of Israel and its scientists. By her actions, which confuse science with politics, the Palestinian population will needlessly continue to suffer from a disease that could be cured through scientific cooperation. This irony seems to have escaped the Norwegian researcher.

This is only the latest example of how some sectors of the international community are singling out Israel and the Jewish people for boycott and censure. Israel has long and consistently been a prime target of international boycotts. Since 1948, the Arab League has enforced a triple-level boycott aimed at isolating the Jewish state: Through economic warfare, it has targeted Israel and Israeli businesses in a primary boycott, companies that did business with Israel or Israeli companies in a secondary boycott and, finally, companies that deal with businesses on the secondary boycott list. Since October 2000, the Arab League has reinvigorated its boycott of Israel.

The Arab League boycott of Israel is illegal under U.S. law. The Export Administration Act of 1977, the primary anti-boycott law, prohibits any U.S. citizen or company from complying with a boycott against a country friendly with the United States. Any requests received by an individual or company for boycott information must be reported to the Office of Anti-Boycott Compliance in the Department of Commerce. Fines have been imposed on U.S. companies that acquiesce to the Arab boycott of Israel.

Within this context, it is distressing that there are increasing calls for boycotts within the American Jewish community. To decry the actions of those who would willfully bring economic harm to Israel while mimicking them against other targets — media outlets, fast food chains, auto manufacturers, entire nations — is to employ an insupportable double standard. The wisdom from Pirkei Avot of "Do unto others…" still rings true even — or especially — in our very dangerous world.

From a practical standpoint, too, boycotts present major strategic limitations. An editorial published in the May 2, 2002 issue of the prestigious British journal Nature, reacting to the spate of European boycotts against Israeli scientists, stated: "…the concept of a research boycott restricts channels that are better kept open. …Such boycotts are misguided and should be opposed in favour of constructive initiatives." In the end, boycotts effectively isolate their targets and withdraw the boycotter from the opportunity for future dialogue.

For instance, if we do not like the way that Israel is portrayed in the media, initiating a conversation with the newspaper, radio station or magazine is the most constructive avenue for change. Hadassah did just that — to some stiff criticism recently — when we invited the president of National Public Radio (NPR) to participate on a panel discussion at our national convention that analyzed media bias against Israel. There were many in the audience who think NPR does not treat Israel fairly in its coverage of the conflict. They forcefully stated so. They listened and they were heard. There were those who disagreed with the speaker’s conclusions, and those who did not. Yet, no one left the session without feeling that an open, freewheeling and important discussion had taken place — that this dialogue was a starting point that holds great promise for change.

The concept of dialogue is sacred to Judaism. The Talmud is written in the form of a dialogue with several minority opinions represented. In civil affairs, democracy is civic dialogue governed by law. As Americans, we are citizens of the world’s most successful democracy. As members of the Jewish community and the Zionist movement, we are grounded in a strong tradition of democracy and dialogue. We proudly point to Israel, our Jewish homeland, as the only democratic state in a region rife with dictators and demagogues who use boycotts to destroy our Zionist dreams.

Boycotts — which by their very nature rule out dialogue — are not democratic tools. In this age of instant communication, most boycotts derive from that most ungoverned of democracies, the World Wide Web. With its promise of reaching thousands of people with the click of a mouse, the Internet has given anyone, anywhere — with a beef and a computer — the ability to organize a boycott. In fact, we are living through the Wild West of the Internet age. Facts are rarely checked; targets are chosen at will; damage is done at lightening speed. Rather than fostering democracy, employing the Web to engage in boycotts is to encourage herd mentality at its worst.

The Hadassah National Board recently passed a policy statement rejecting all calls for boycotts from the Jewish community. We urge our members to resist the nearly endless and seductive invitations to join boycotts. We urge the same of our colleagues in the Jewish community at-large. We urge everyone to keep the paths of communication open, to discuss, to argue, to settle conflicts through open negotiations and not the unilateral actions of a boycott. As in the case of the Norwegian researcher, the cost of doing otherwise is simply too great.

The Neurobiology of Teshuvah

As a scientist and a believer in human progress, I have been concerned about how well the established process of teshuvah (repentance) has worked. Yom Kippur after Yom Kippur – in fact, since the 11th century – we have recited the same confessional prayer, “Al Chet.” If we were any good at repentance, shouldn’t the list have changed in 1,000 years? Even if we don’t want to change the ancient formula, shouldn’t we be able to feel that we had eliminated or reduced at least a few on the list? Yet the list of sins remains the same, as does the ritual for expunging them. Why haven’t we improved?

Perhaps we are genetically stuck. The newspapers and scientific journals are full of genetic determinism. Human geneticists, aided by the massive investment in the human genome project, have identified hundreds of genes in which specific alterations cause conditions that range from mental retardation to dyslexia. Mouse geneticists have created models not only of human disease, but also of mating and mental processing. One recent headline concerned genetically engineered male mice that spent more or less time grooming their mates, according to which piece of regulatory DNA they received. Other transgenic mice were better than their sibs in learning to find an underwater platform.

Or maybe we are stuck with the particular wiring of our brains. A person who suffers a stroke that affects one region of the brain cannot hear; another person can hear but cannot recognize words; another can recognize words but cannot identify a photograph of the President; another can recognize the President but cannot identify the function of a hammer or a screwdriver. Similarly, a range of neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders – many of which have genetic components – affect thought, memory, mood, and even religious experience.

In the face of such powerful biological constraints, can we really hope to change ourselves or our community? The answer is certainly yes.

It is true that genes determine the basic wiring of the brain and therefore the basic processing pathways for external information and internal feelings. But the brain is nothing if not a learning machine.

Neuroscientists talk about the brain’s plasticity, meaning that the brain can not only change but that it can also maintain those changes over time. Genes certainly influence many aspects of the brain’s structure and operations, but – as our everyday experience attests – genes alone do not determine who we are or what decisions we will make about our lives.

Evolution has produced a genetically programmed brain, adapted for plasticity. Humans may be hardwired to learn language, just as a songbird is hardwired to learn a song, but the particular language and the particular song depend on experience. We can also learn to pedal a bicycle, play a piano or putt a golf ball. While we learn these skills best during childhood, we maintain plasticity as adults.

In every case, learning changes the physical state of the brain. Even people who have suffered strokes or spinal cord injury can often recover lost functions during rehabilitation by practicing strategies that employ and strengthen alternate neural routes. Similarly, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy may well work by selectively entraining alternate neural pathways.

In the last few years, neuroscientists have been working hard to understand the nature of these changes, in humans and other primates, in mice and rats, even in fruit flies and sea hares. Several lessons have emerged. First, even without changing their circuitry, nerve cells can change the intensity of their communication with one another so that a particular circuit works more or less easily as a result of experience; a sea hare escapes more rapidly from noxious stimulus after several encounters, just as practice modifies our facility on a bicycle or a dance floor.

A particularly exciting recent discovery has been that, contrary to our previous understanding, some nerve-cell precursors preserve their capacity to divide even into adult life. These progenitors can generate new nerve cells in response to environmental stimulation. Putting young rats into an enriched environment (for example, by placing toys and other objects into their normally bleak cages) stimulates the proliferation of these cells, suggesting a cellular basis for the well-known benefits of a rich environment in early childhood. In the not too distant future, these neural progenitor cells may provide a means for repairing brains and spinal cords damaged by disease or injury.

Even without dividing, however, nerve cells can alter their shape and their connections as a result of environment and experience. Some of the most extraordinary such changes occur during the recovery from brain or spinal cord injury. Nerve cells – in both the brain and spinal cord – sprout new connections and make new signaling molecules. More heavily used neural pathways sometimes even take over from unused circuits, for example, in those pathways once connected to a now-amputated limb.

One well-known case involves an impressive man named Craig Dobkin, who was badly hurt in a climbing accident, severing his lower spinal cord so that he lost conscious control of his legs. Craig had some good fortune, however, in that his brother is Dr. Bruce Dobkin, Director of Neurorehabilitation at UCLA, a man who has pioneered new methods for retraining the brain and spinal cord after stroke and spinal cord injury. As a result of this retraining, Craig’s spinal cord has learned to pattern his leg movements even though it no longer communicates directly with the brain. The important result is that Craig can move on crutches, rather than only in a wheel chair.

Since his accident, Craig Dobkin has founded an organization called Play for Peace, which brings children from conflicting cultures together through cooperative play. The goal of Play for Peace is to promote positive relationships among people who have a history of intercultural tension, starting in Jerusalem with Israeli and Palestinian youngsters. By bringing children with unique backgrounds, values, and beliefs together through the seemingly simple act of play, Play for Peace sows seeds of compassion. It is as if Craig Dobkin has adapted his brother Bruce’s method of fostering spinal cord plasticity to the fostering of moral plasticity.

Our capacity for teshuvah is, I believe, a reflection of our neural plasticity. The limitations of our teshuvah do not reflect genetic programs, but the more basic problem of the nature of sin itself. Indeed, many of the sins listed in the “Al Chet” confessional seem to be rather subtle distortions of activities and thoughts that are positive: sinful meditations do not occur in an uncontemplative person; nor does contentiousness or scoffing arise in someone who has separated from the community; and sinful confession of the lips can only happen in someone who is moved to confession in the first place. Our problem then is to unravel the good from the evil. We need to increase our capacity to discern.

How can we take advantage of neural plasticity in making such important distinctions? To the extent that we can choose our experiences – internal and external – we can consciously change the workings of our brains, just as Craig Dobkin can consciously – if indirectly – change the workings of his legs. Just as we gradually learn to discriminate between creativity and clichĂ© in literature, art, movies and music, we must train ourselves to discriminate morally between expansiveness and aggressivity, between involvement and voyeurism, between helpfulness and presumption. In our teshuvah, we must train ourselves to become connoisseurs of our own actions. The bad news is that this task is highly complex; the good news is that our brains are on our side – intellectually and emotionally. The meaning of the annual repetition of the same sins may be that our tradition recognizes that this struggle inevitably must continue from year to year.

For more information about Play for Peace, visit