Prof. Shulamit Levenberg: [The recognition] is an acknowledgement of the importance of what we do scientifically and therapeutically.It was an ordinary day like any other when Shulamit Levenberg picked up her mail near her home in Israel’s Lower Galilee region. But the letter inside the box was anything but ordinary.
It announced that Levenberg, a professor at the Technion’s Faculty of Biomedical Engineering, had been named by the prestigious American journal Scientific American as one of the world’s 50 leading scientists for 2006, for her groundbreaking work in tissue engineering.
“I was totally surprised, I didn’t know anything about it,” the 37-year-old mother of five told ISRAEL21c, describing her reaction to standing alongside international figures like former US Vice President and environmentalist Al Gore and business tycoon Warren Buffet – people whom the journal’s editors believe led the way in science and technology over the past year.
“Our publication chose the organizations or individuals who advanced science and technology, laying the foundations for a better future,” said Scientific American editor John Rennie in announcing the list. “Their selection for our list of 50 not only gives them the honor they deserve but also highlights the important fields that benefit from their achievements.”
Levenberg said that the recognition will provide her with a great deal of extra inspiration for her work.
“It’s an acknowledgement of the importance of what we do scientifically and therapeutically, and it gives me a lot of motivation to continue,” she said.
Not that Levenberg needs a lot of motivation. In a career marked by a steady rise to the top of the scientific world, she has made her mark via a breakthrough process in the creation of human tissue – a development which could result in the ability of scientists to create tissue for various medical uses and to eventually replace damaged organs in the body. Levenberg believes the accomplishment may one day lead to the cure of degenerative diseases.
The achievement was the result of collaboration over the past five years between Levenberg and her mentor Prof. Robert Langer of MIT – the results of which were published in 2005.
A year after their initial research, the researchers succeeded in creating, for the first time in the laboratory, muscle tissue with a blood vessel network that attracted additional blood vessels, a development with important ramifications for tissue engineering, which was reported in Nature Biotechnology.
Levenberg and Langer’s group transplanted the engineered muscle in a rat and discovered that the blood vessels in the muscle tissue attracted additional blood vessels, thus aiding in its survival.
“We succeeded in producing vascular muscle tissue in vitro,” Levenberg proudly said. “The creation of the blood vessels in the tissue helped to preserve the life of the tissue during growth, to bring about orderly development, and to enable, in reality, rapid attraction of additional blood vessels to the tissue after its transplantation.”
Until now, the creation of blood vessel networks in tissue engineered in the laboratory was an obstacle in creating thick, complex tissue, such as muscle tissue. In the future, according to Technion researchers, it may be possible to use this method to create engineered tissue and to improve tissue acceptance by the human body to the point where muscle replacement will be possible.
Levenberg’s collaboration with MIT’s Langer came about when she finished her PhD at the Weizmann Institute and traveled to Cambridge to do her post-doc work in Langer’s lab. There she built biological scaffolds to coax stem cells into developing into specific cell types.
“After my post-doc, I continued on as a research associate from 1999-2004. I really enjoyed my time at MIT from all aspects, especially scientifically. My time there was very significant,” she said. “They have a good opinion of science in Israel. Everyone knows about the Technion – especially at MIT with all its engineering.”
One of seven sisters raised in a religiously observant home, Levenberg said she was never pushed by her parents to enter the field of science, but found it on her own.
“I don’t know why I entered the field, I was interested in many things but decided to continue higher education in science,” she said. “Out of the seven of us, only my sister Tamar also went into science. [Dr. Tamar Jehuda-Cohen is Chief Technical Officer of Smart Biotech, a startup which has developed a process for early detection of the HIV virus].
As a scientist involved in stem cell research, Levenberg is sensitive to the controversy surrounding the issue of the use of embryotic stem cells in the United States. Judaism’s view of when life begins is the source of general public agreement on this issue in Israel. Biblical and Talmudic law consider the status of human life to be a gradual process that is attained during the development of the embryo – rather than at fertilization, which is the view of many Christian denominations.
“A group of cells in a test tube is not considered a human being by Judaism.
I understand the reasoning behind the decision by the US that limits stem cell research, but regret it when I think of all the research that could be done with the US brainpower and financial backing,” said Levenberg.
Still in the afterglow of the career-recognition achievement, Levenberg is already looking ahead at her next set of goals.
“We’re continuing the vascularization aspect, and trying to understand other tissue more. We’re also working in 3D tissue structure and in the interaction between the scaffold and the cells, she said, adding that understanding how they differentiate into different types of cells will supply a great deal of information on fetal development and the creation of blood vessels that nurture tissue.”
At the same time, she’s still nurturing her five children, a juggling challenge which keeps Levenberg on her toes.
“Like every working woman, you find the right balance. But I think they’re happy that I’m doing something important, and something that I’m happy with.”