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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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Researcher seeks cure for mitochondrial diseases

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Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor Haya Lorberboum-Galski spoke in Toronto about her research into mitochondrial diseases. [Rinath Maman photo]

September means back to school for more than just kids. At the Schwartz-Reisman Centre in Vaughan, Ont., adults filled makeshift classrooms to soak in knowledge from the best of Hebrew University.

Topics ranged from politics, medicine, social science and more. Although the lecture series has been held since 2000, this is the first year that the event was held north of Toronto. That means a new audience, said Elan Divon, executive director of Canadian Friends of Hebrew University.

Haya Lorberboum-Galski is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who was featured at the series this year. She spoke to a room of about 15 people about her research into mitochondrial diseases.

Her lecture was not a simple topic. She delved into the background of medication, explaining how a researcher may find a cure for metabolic and genetic diseases.

She introduced her presentation, explaining that she would take the audience through the journey of how she is working to develop a cure, and the process that she must follow in the hopes that she will one day reach human trial. This means following a set of steps that includes an idea stage, to testing on cells and then mice, before finally reaching human trial.

“Modern medicine offers no cure for mitochondrial diseases,” she said. “Nothing is known.”

In her research laboratory, she tries to find some knowledge on these diseases. She studies potential treatments to cure these illnesses, which she said can affect anybody, but tends to be found in certain cultures, such as Ashkenazi Jews.

Despite the tough subject matter, Lorberboum-Galski tried to simplify the terms to make it accessible for the public. For example, she compared mitochondria – which helps to energize a person – to a battery. If a person has damaged mitochondria, it’s like they are running on a damaged battery, in that a person is not able to function, or find energy, without it.

Lorberboum-Galski encouraged the audience to pose questions, and many did. That being said, the material was clearly directed at someone with a background in science.

A major theme in her presentation was about money. A researcher’s success is largely dependent on how much money is allocated to the research. She explained that scientists have been researching cures for these diseases but have so far been unsuccessful. After 10 years and a lot of resources, a researcher can take an idea and turn it into medicine, she said.

“You have to invest something like millions of dollars,” she said, and researchers can spend their lives just working to get the grants needed to test the idea.

Speaking to The CJN after the lecture, Lorberboum-Galski said she hopes the audience will not only learn about the many studies coming out of Hebrew University, but that the lectures will also pave the way for potential donations.

“I think it’s a way of raising some future money for the research, for the institute, for everything that is so important for us,” she said.

And beyond the money, she said she hopes the lecture gave optimism to anybody in the audience who might know somebody with a mitochondrial disease.

“I think it’s giving them some hope that new developments are going on, and part of it is being developed in Israel,” she said. “There is a hope for some kind of the diseases that are [currently] with no answer.”

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