Professor Stephen Hawking talks to scientists at Tel Aviv University where he presented a lecture on the origins of the world.World renowned Cambridge University theoretical physicist professor Stephen Hawking may have arrived in Israel last week to give lectures and promote British science, but he left learning something as well.

With its advanced work in both embryonic and adult stem cell research, and its proven track record with neurodegenerative diseases, Israel may become a leading world research center in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which Hawking has suffered from for more than 40 years. Founded in 2004, the Israel Association for ALS has galvanized some of the country’s brightest research minds to probe the disease and develop new therapies to combat its devastating effects.

ALS, often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. In most cases, diagnosis leads to quadriplegia and death within two to five years from the onset of symptoms.

ALS is not as rare as some might think. It occurs in the United States as often as multiple sclerosis – about two people for every 100,000; there are about 30,000 cases in the US at any given time, with about 5,600 new cases diagnosed each year.

The famed UK physicist who penned the bestseller A Brief History of Time, didn’t expect to live very long after he was diagnosed at 22. Today, at age 64 t, Hawking is the exception to ALS, rather than the rule. He can’t use his vocal chords or his lips to talk, but communicates using an infra-red “blink switch” and a computer. Despite his handicap, he travels around the world lecturing on physics, and during his recent visit to Israel, Hawking met with both ALS sufferers and officials from the Israel Association for ALS.

“The people who suffer from ALS in Israel are creating a revolution,” the Association’s Tal Leder told ISRAEL21c. “Up until two years ago there was zero research in Israel because the people who suffered from ALS, well, they die so quickly.”

Hawking learned about the Association’s unusually speedy effort to rally a mass of Israeli scientists to study the disease – its progression, and possible therapies and cures. Without the restrictions that apply in the US to stem cell research, as well as its proven track record with neurodegenerative diseases, Israel could become a leading center for ALS research, Leder explained.

“I can’t believe how quickly the group pulled everything together,” says Miguel Weil, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s (TAU) department of cell research and immunology, who was the first to sign on to the initiative two years ago. “It’s virtually unheard of in the scientific community. I have never seen anything like it.”

Weil joins two other scientists at TAU and three from the Weizmann Institute who have recently received funding to carry out basic ALS research. Leder reports that all of the other major Israeli research centers – Hebrew University’s Hadassah Hospital, the Technion and Ben Gurion University, will also be getting funding dedicated to ALS.

Weil’s team at TAU is building a model using adult stem cells in order to study ALS nerve cells grown and expressed outside the body of an ALS sufferer. Once achieved, Weil hopes to be able to attack the ALS nerve cells with a battery of potential drugs. In the future, his research may lead to cell replacement therapy, which may be the closest alternative to a cure.

Through communicating with ALS patients on a weekly basis, Weil knows all too well about the tear-jerking stories of patients who are diagnosed with less than three years to live.

“If you compare Stephen Hawking’s story to those of other people with ALS around the world, his is a positive one. Hawking is an incredible personality, with great strength and will,” Weil told ISRAEL21c. He added that perhaps it was Hawking’s example which has influenced the Israeli ALS sufferers who are “the ones moving forward this huge wagon of ideas and energies. I have never heard of such incredible efficiency.”

The spearhead behind the Association was ALS sufferer David Cohen, an Israeli businessman who was diagnosed with ALS in 2003. Prior to diagnosis he enjoyed travelling to Sinai and practicing Tai Chi.

“David decided that for him maybe it is too late,” says Leder, “but he wanted to establish a center for funding research in Israel.”

Since its inception, Cohen has put forward $100 000 from his own pocket and has since raised more than $2 million. This amount is considered by insiders to be an unusual feat, as historically, ALS is not a popular disease for research due to the fact that scientists do not understand what causes it, and drug companies are hesitant to invest research funds because of the relatively small percentage of ALS sufferers worldwide.

Hawking and American baseball legend Lou Gehrig are the world’s most famous ALS sufferers. The disease was first brought to light in America and to the international community when Gehrig suddenly retired from baseball in 1939, after being diagnosed with the disease. Other famous Americans whose lives were cut short from ALS includes Hall of Fame pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Senator Jacob Javits, creator of Sesame Street Jon Stone, and US Army General Maxwell Taylor.

The debilitating disease did not prevent Hawking from implementing a schedule for his fourth visit to Israel that would have exhausted a completely healthy person. Arranged by the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, Hawking was escorted by British Ambassador Tom Phillips throughout a busy week that encompassed meetings with aspiring young scientists at Jerusalem’s Bloomfield Science Museum, a visit with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; and pre-recorded lectures at Hebrew University, the Weizmann, and TAU, among other stops.

With rock star appeal, Hawking attracted Israeli scientists, young students, politicians and ALS sufferers who came to hear him expound on the physics of black holes, the fate of our universe, and the future of the Middle East. But most of all, participants said they came to witness a miracle: the triumph of the human spirit in the face of an insidious neurological disease.

Since it’s difficult for Hawking to give interviews, his personal assistant Judith Croasdell, who travels with Hawking around the world, was pleased to speak on his behalf. She told ISRAEL21c that Hawking came to Israel because “the science has always been a center of excellence.”

Let’s hope for Hawking’s sake and other ALS sufferers around the world that Israel can add a piece to the complicated puzzle of this disease.