Cancer researchers from the Technion Israel Institute of Science.Israeli cancer researchers have a great deal to offer their American counterparts both in the research taking place in their own laboratories and as potential collaborators in joint research – but they need help in spreading the word.
That was the message that came out of the first-ever joint American-Israeli Conference on Cancer which brought dozens of the United States’ leading cancer researchers to Israel last week.
The aim of the event was to promote collaborative research and help Israel receive greater recognition and credit around the world for its researchers’ extensive work on cancer, but many of the American researchers walked away from the conference wowed by the presentations of their Israeli counterparts.
“One of the best parts has been meeting young Israeli scientists, students, and PhD candidates. I’ve had the opportunity to walk around, see their work, and talk to them, and have been most impressed,” Prof. Susan Horwitz of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York told ISRAEL21c.
The three-day Jerusalem conference – which was entitled ‘Novel Therapeutic Approaches to Cancer’ – was organized by researchers at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.
“We feel that over the past few years, Israel – pound-for-pound a relative research powerhouse – has been shortchanged by the lack of convention visitors,” said Dr. Joseph D. Rosenblatt, associate director of clinical and translational research at the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Worries about security and violence in the Middle East are among the factors that have limited scientific symposia. With this conference, we want to foster ties and recognize the contributions that Israelis make to the international cancer effort and create real opportunities for the development of new therapeutic, prognostic and diagnostic approaches, based on interactions between scientists in this country and in Israel.”
“There has been a long history of productive collaborations between American and Israeli scientists, resulting in significant increases in our understanding and treatment of cancer,” said Dr. Hyam I. Levitsky, professor of oncology, medicine and urology at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. “This conference hopefully will provide new fuel to this fire, sparking ideas, collaborations, and interest among research fellows in visiting institutions abroad.”
And, indeed, in the lobby and halls of the conference, American and Israeli researchers were paired off, or in threes, discussing techniques, innovations and room for collaboration.
“I’ve already had or two or three meetings coming out of the last two days of sessions,” said Michael B. Kastan M.D., Ph.D. of the St. Jude’s Childrens Research Hospital in Memphis Tennessee. “There’s been a lot of opportunities for interaction – more than I thought – for improving interaction between American and Israeli scientists.”
“The science in Israel is outstanding and we have a lot to learn – and again that was part of the impetus for the meeting – to make sure that the outstanding science that is in Israel is not isolated, and to provide another forum for interaction,” he told ISRAEL21c.
Dr. Izodore Lossos, an Associate Professor at the Universtiy of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, said he had also found possible collaborations with Israeli counterparts.
“I’m going later this afternoon to meet with two Israeli researchers for possible collaborations, and it initially looks very promising,” said Lossos, whose area of research is lymphoma.
According to Lossos, Israeli researchers are often unable to significant grant money for their research, and funding within Israel is limited. This is an area in which the American side can help.
“It’s very difficult to do good science in Israel,” said Lossos. “Despite all this, Israelis scientists are doing great science – despite a limited budgets.
“One of the reasons to come here is to try to make collaborations that will help Israel scientists to find grant money from the outside. Inducing collaboration, where there will be US scientists and Israeli scientists together, will greatly help Israeli researchers receive more financial support.”
The highlight for many of the participants was the keynote lecture by 2004 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry Prof. Avram Hershko, who discussed his research on ubiquitin, a molecule that helps flag a protein to be broken down. This system is used in a variety of cell processes including the immune system, cell division, and DNA repair. The knowledge of how the breakdown process works offers hope for the treatment of cervical cancer and cystic fibrosis, among other diseases
“He’s an unbelievable scientist and unbelievable human being. He’s produced an outstanding body of work over his lifetime,” said Kastan.
Other highlights for the participants included a session on stem cell transplants, with two prominent Israeli researchers presenting their work. Weizman Institute Professor Yair Reisner has pioneered transplantation in patients with acute leukemia with the use of hematopoietic stem cells – and Hadassah University Medical Center bone marrow transplantation pioneer Prof. Shimon Slavin, has worked on the science of training donor lymphocytes in a laboratory to act as honing devices to kill cancer cells, before being infused into a patient whose own lymphocytes are not properly doing their job.
Scientists at the conference also addressed research advances in cancer genetics; cell signaling at the DNA/RNA level; immune system therapies; targeted treatments; and novel approaches to breast cancer and solid tumors. According to the conference literature, Israeli scientists made some of the first discoveries implicating the p53 gene in cancer, now considered the most commonly mutated cancer-related gene, They also contributed to current understanding of bone marrow transplant and stem cells.
“The presentations have been outstanding, and an interesting mix of basic science, and clinical science – applying the basic knowledge to clinical trials,” said Kastan. “I’ve learned about areas that I personally do not work in, or are familiar with. I work in environmental carcinogenesis – DNA damage and repair, molecular biology. But yesterday was focused on immunology – the ways immunologic response can be modulated in tumors – it’s not something I would normally have a chance to hear a lot about.”
Regardless of precisely how many collaborations arise from the conference, it’s clear that the American researchers will be going home and sharing what they found in Israel with their colleagues back in the US.
“I’ll certainly tell the journal clubs that I go to about the research I’ve learned here,” said Horwitz.
Kastan concurred, “The conference was helpful to me personally – and will allow me to recommend to my colleagues back home certain Israeli individuals they can interact with.”