Regenerative medicine technology will, over the coming years, make a major difference in the lives of millions of people around the world, says a group of British and Israeli scientists – and a slew of charitable organizations, as well as the two governments, are so convinced that they are putting two million British pounds into five projects that will include some 200 senior scientists and assistants from both countries.
One of the biggest supporters of the program is the British Ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould. There is no shortage of projects for a top diplomat like Gould to dedicate his time and efforts to, but the regenerative medical project is different. “Britain and Israel are both world leaders in regenerative medicine,” Gould said. “This project gets our scientists working in joint research projects, so that together they can find cures for some of the world’s most awful diseases.”
The term “regenerative medicine” generally refers to using the body’s own cells and tissues to regenerate parts of the body that have been damaged or have stopped functioning. The most well-known example of regenerative medicine is the use of stem cells to grow tissues and even organs, but there are other aspects to the technology, including medical devices that can help stimulate cell replacement, molecular medicine (where molecular structures and mechanisms are used to understand how cells function in the body), and other areas. Tens of millions suffering from injuries and debilitating diseases – including people with heart conditions, Type I diabetes, and diseases of the central nervous system, are already benefitting from research done on stem cell and other regenerative therapies.
The effort is being led by the Britain Israel Research Academic Exchange (BIRAX), an innovative program launched jointly in 2008 by the prime Mmnisters of the United Kingdom and Israel to develop the enormous potential in scientific collaboration between the UK and Israel. The program, officially called the BIRAX Regenerative Medicine Initiative, includes projects such as developing stem cell treatments for multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, looking for a regenerative therapy for Type 1 diabetes, and finding ways to persuade the immune system not to attack stem cells.
BIRAX held a conference last year, where dozens of scientists from both countries discussed possible areas for cooperation, Gould told The Times of Israel. “There was a debate on what the best initiative would be, and at the end the scientists chose regenerative medicine. The UK is one of the most advanced countries in the world in stem cell use, and there has been a great deal of research on stem cell use in Israel,” said Gould, so it made sense for a group like BIRAX to choose regenerative medicine as an area for joint initiatives.
It will truly be a joint effort, said Gould. “The scientists and labs in both countries will collaborate and the work will be split between the two countries. For each project, about half the scientists will be located in either country.”
BIRAX is overseen by the UK-Israel Life Sciences Council, a body of 19 leading scientists from the UK and Israel launched by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague in November 2010 to improve science collaboration between the two countries, with the British Embassy in Israel working with both groups. “We are making sure that the projects are being led by the scientists, to ensure that we get the very best results,” said Gould. “The one thing we asked was that there be genuine collaboration between the teams in Israel and the UK,” and both BIRAX and the council were very responsive, the ambassador said.
The projects include research into areas like “Changes to DNA that affect the fate of stem cells,” involving scientists from the University of Cambridge and the Weizmann Institute, “Helping to to develop a regenerative therapy for type 1 diabetes” (University of Cambridge – Hebrew University), “Persuading the immune system not to attack stem cells” (University of Oxford – Weizmann Institute), and others. The chosen projects offer the prospect of a significant impact on global health, enhancing joint research between British and Israeli academic institutions and invest in early stage collaboration between researchers, BIRAX said.
The scientific communities in Israel and the UK are very excited about the project, with top scientists in both countries enthusiastically endorsing it. Esteemed British scientist Professor Lord Winston said that the projects, “playing on the academic strengths of both countries and of the highest scientific quality, will not only have a major impact in this increasingly important area of medical science, and will be likely to benefit many people suffering from common diseases affecting the brain, such as dementia as well as heart function and other illnesses.” Leading Israeli stem cell scientist Professor Jacob Hanna, a project leader on a Weizmann Institute project, said that “stem cell research brings great promises and has seen remarkable breakthroughs in the last years. The generous funding for my project by the BIRAX initiative enables me to address several remaining critical questions in stem cell research and to strengthen scientific ties with internationally renowned British stem cell scientists.”
Gould couldn’t be more pleased. “Britain and Israel are natural partners in regenerative medicine,” he said. “The UK is a world leader in science – we have four of the world’s top ten universities – and Israel is a scientific powerhouse. We can achieve much more together than we can apart.”