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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

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They strive to save lives

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Third of a series


“Our mission is service to the Jewish people and service to the world,” Menahem Ben-Sasson, president of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, (Jan. 31, 2010).

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Hebrew University’s medical sciences facilities are on the Ein Kerem campus on the far western hillside of Jerusalem.

Many people know of the Hadassah Hospital, the anchor of the campus, and of the 12 famous stained-glass Chagall windows in the small synagogue adjacent to the hospital. But the campus, carved onto the hilltop high above the historically storied valley below, comprises much more than the hospital.

The Ein Kerem campus houses five distinct medical faculties: medicine, dentistry, nursing, occupational therapy and pharmacy. It is the largest educational institute for medical sciences in Israel. The 3,500 students who study there come from all ethnic and socio-economic groups of Israeli society as well as, of course, from around the world.

The place hums from all directions with healing-related activity. It is impossible not to sense the electricity in the super-charged atmosphere of this impossibly busy place that constantly flashes the message: life must be saved.

The largest single institute for medical research on the campus, indeed in the country, is a relatively new one. And it is one in which Canada and Canadian scientists are integrally involved: IMRIC.

The acronym stands for The Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada. It is a bold, imaginative, innovative approach to trying to save lives. More than 100 scientists work there in a multidisciplinary framework, each striving to understand some aspect, ever smaller, ever more particular, but ever more profoundly significant of the many diseases that fell human beings.

IMRIC scientists are Israelis and Canadians. Together they are pushing past and through the terrain of what we know today into what we must know tomorrow if humanity is to vanquish cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, infectious diseases and alas, many, many others.

Earlier this month in Jerusalem, The CJN visited with some of the IMRIC researchers.

Prof. David Lichtstein is the chair of IMRIC. His credentials are as long as a legal-size notepad. The former chair of the department of physiology and the former president of the Israel Society for Physiology and Pharmacology knows a great deal, inter alia, about intracellular activities and the interaction of drugs at the molecular and cellular level. But that was not the subject of our discussion nor did we ever come close to it.

Rather, the diminutive scholar, researcher and scientist quietly but dreamily spoke of his hopes for IMRIC, its importance to the world of medicine, its importance to everyone.

“We are trying to establish something for the long run,” Lichtstein said. And then, echoing the words and the aspirations of Hebrew University president Menahem Ben-Sasson, and even his colleague, Dr. Aharon (Ronnie) Friedman, dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, he said, “We have the possibility of achieving significant results for the entire world.”

Over the course of a singularly exciting day, The CJN met with nine IMRIC scientists. Not once through an entire day of introductions, discussions, note-taking and reflection did the feeling leave this writer that vastly exciting, good and important work is being done there.

Space does not permit even the most superficial of elaborations into any of their research. The following are two brief examples of aspects of their work.

Prof. Shosh Ravid at the department of biochemistry and molecular biology sparkled with emotion as she told of her discovery of a short peptide tail in an amino acid actually causing a diseased cancer cell to “commit suicide.”

“We can possibly kill the diseased cell, while enabling the good cells to survive,” she said.

Dr. Rotem Karni, also of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology somewhat dryly offered that certain aspects of his research into the gene-splicing factors that regulate the behaviour of cancerous cells may yield new tools for diagnosis. His lab has discovered that the appearance of a certain splicing factor may be treatable with already established, identifiable drugs.

The Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University (CFHU) has taken upon itself the daunting task of raising some $50 million to ensure IMRIC’s permanence. CFHU national president Nathan Lindenberg told The CJN last summer that raising those funds was the most significant undertaking in CFHU’s history. It could also be a significant undertaking for the future of medical history.         

To commemorate the 85th anniversary of the opening of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, The CJN was recently invited by Canadian Friends of Hebrew University to travel to Jerusalem, visit the university and meet and engage with some of its scholars, researchers and teachers.

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