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'A top priority for the government'

University launches major $75 million project to combat diabetes, as cases climb

Bar Ilan University initiative will focus on Galilee region, where cases are 3 times higher than national average; 1 million Israelis expected to be diabetic by 2040

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A diabetic man injecting himself with insulin (iStock by Getty Images)
A diabetic man injecting himself with insulin (iStock by Getty Images)

In Israel’s most ambitious non-government attempt to fight diabetes, Bar Ilan University has launched a 10-year, $75 million program in northern Israel’s Galilee region, where residents are especially susceptible to the disease.

The initiative was officially inaugurated on Tuesday evening in a ceremony in the northern city of Safed. The project will open a new medical facility and help local governments combat the disease by encouraging a healthy lifestyle and providing health services.

The New Jersey-based Russell Berrie Foundation gave a $20 million grant to the project. Bar Ilan University is set to raise more funds from the government, other philanthropists and research grants, and continue its efforts to manage existing diabetes cases and limit the number of new cases.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said in a speech the initiative “will address one of the most difficult health problems in the north,” as government officials and 100 representatives from Galilee communities applauded. Officials signed a declaration in both Hebrew and Arabic on the importance of fighting diabetes to honor the area’s mixed Jewish and Arab population.

The new medical facility is called the Russell Berrie Social Precision-medicine Health Equity Research Endeavor, or SPHERE center. It is focussed on preventing Type 2 diabetes, which has a large correlation to diet and lifestyle, and on better managing Type 1 diabetes, which has a strong hereditary element.

Dr. Sivan Spitzer, deputy director of the new center, told The Times of Israel that it will give “a major boost to Israel’s efforts against diabetes.”

By 2040, around one million Israeli citizens are expected to be diabetic. The country’s current population is around 9.3 million.

Dr. Sivan Spitzer (courtesy of Bar Ilan University)

Cases are particularly common in areas with a lower socio-economic profile, and tend to be higher in Arab communities. Both are characteristics of the Galilee, where residents are three times more likely to develop diabetes and suffer from complications than other areas in Israel.

Many of the Galilee cases, especially in Arab communities where there isn’t a strong hereditary propensity to diabetes, are Type 2 – meaning that experts are optimistic about potential for prevention.

“We are deploying a unique model that brings together partners from all sectors of society and all relevant disciplines to address this challenge and make an impact upon the lives of the diverse Galilee population,” Spitzer said.

The endocrinologist heading the project, Prof. Naim Shehadeh, hopes — among other goals — to reduce the rate of pre-diabetes converting to diabetes by 50%.

Shehadeh, currently president of the Israeli Diabetes Association and director of Diabetes Endocrinology and Metabolism at Rambam Medical Center, plans to collaborate in the effort with municipalities, healthcare providers, hospitals, social services, religious community leaders, women’s organizations and other partners.

The launch event for The Russell Berrie Social Precision-medicine Health Equity Research Endeavour on November 16, 2021. Left to right: Bar-Ilan University President Prof. Arie Zaban, lawmaker Idit Silman, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, Director of SPHERE Prof. Naim Shehadeh, Angelica Berrie, President of The Russell Berrie Foundation, Azrieli Faculty of Medicine Dean Prof. Karl Skorecki, Bar-Ilan Permanent Committee Chairman Shlomo Zohar. (courtesy of Bar Ilan University)

SPHERE’s interdisciplinary team, which includes researchers, clinicians, urban planners and public health professionals, will work with municipalities in disadvantaged areas to encourage a healthier lifestyle.

The center will focus on providing healthy food in school cafeterias, health education in schools, building exercise facilities in neighborhoods with high diabetes rates and increasing accessibility to healthcare services with a mobile medical unit that will provide annual health examinations.

“One of our strengths will be our ability to take a very wide approach and work with a very wide variety of people, all committed to the same aim of reducing the growth of diabetes,” Spitzer told The Times of Israel.

Prof. Naim Shehadeh (courtesy of Bar Ilan University)

Shehadeh said the project, based at Bar Ilan University’s Azrieli Faculty of Medicine in Safed, will also include research that will work toward improving treatments and even developing cures.

“This is the largest project of its kind in our nation’s history,” he commented. “I believe that it will serve as a stepping stone to forthcoming national and worldwide comprehensive programs, using cutting-edge scientific models for improving health services for disadvantaged communities,” he said.

At Tuesday’s launch event, coalition whip Idit Silman said diabetes was “a top priority for the government.”

“Tonight, a major effort to reduce morbidity rates and to become a leader in the field of diabetes begins. I ask you to expand the project to the entire country, and to become a leading center of knowledge on an international level. This is the connection we need between academia and the field,” she said.

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