Dr. Shulamit Levenberg pulls out a dish of human embryonic stem cells from an incubator and carefully places them under a microscope to see how they are beginning to take form as human tissue.
Levenberg, a researcher at the Technion University in Haifa, is working on cutting-edge tissue engineering research with the help of human embryonic stem cells —research that she hopes will lead eventually to the creation of lab-manufactured tissues and organs for transplants.
These days, Israeli scientists who have helped pioneer the field of embryonic stem-cell research are warily eyeing Washington, D.C., where a showdown is brewing between Congress and the White House over federal policy on research in the field.
A bill passed in May by the House of Representatives seeks to expand government funding for embryonic stem-cell research and now is set to go to the Senate. President Bush has threatened to veto the legislation, which would expand the number of research lines of stem cells eligible for federal funding.
According to current law, funding is available only to research lines that existed in 2001 and before.
Developments in D.C. are a cause of concern for Israeli scientists because if research funding in the United States decreases, there will be less of a pool for funding worldwide.
“It may affect progress in the field if Bush stopped the process of more liberal funding,” said Dr. Binyamin Reubinoff, who heads the Hadassah Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center. “It has an influence on scientists and the availability for money for research.”
In Israel, following the dictates of Jewish law that do not view the embryo as potential life until it is inside the uterus of an expectant mother, such research is not controversial.
“In Israel the attitudes are much more positive,” said Levenberg, who herself is an observant Jew. “Here it is not thought of as killing the cells but of using them to save life.”
Researchers are eager to use embryonic stem cells, which appear just days after fertilization, because the cells have the ability to develop into body tissue.
Theoretically, once the DNA of such cells is successfully manipulated in the lab, they can be transplanted into humans one day to help treat a wide range of diseases, among them neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases and multiple sclerosis, as well as heart failure, diabetes and other conditions.
In Israel, funding for research is scarce and researchers rely heavily on grants from abroad.
The Hadassah Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center has been one of the leading labs for stem-cell research internationally. Hadassah, in cooperation with universities in Australia and Singapore, was the second group in the world to derive stem cells from human embryos.
The group produced six of the human embryonic stem-cell lines that are available for federally funded research in the United States. Some of these lines are among those that are distributed to labs researching stem cells around the world.
In Jerusalem, Reubinoff’s team at Hadassah found that implanting human stem cells into the brains of rats alleviates some symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The discovery, announced last year, gives some hope to the millions around the world who suffer from the disease because it may pave the way for using embryonic stem cells as a treatment.
Along with the Technion and Hadassah, the Hebrew University is the other cutting-edge research leader in the embryonic stem-cell research field in Israel.
Recently, Hebrew University’s Dr. Nissim Benvenisty went to Capitol Hill together with several other American researchers to brief lawmakers in the House and the Senate about embryonic stem-cell research.
A professor of genetics and the head of the stem-cell unit department at the life sciences institute at Hebrew University, Benvenisty presented new data from his lab as he tried to convince the lawmakers that embryonic stem-cell research was the scientific way to go.
Benvenisty’s research team was the first to genetically manipulate human embryonic stem cells, and he said that, in doing so, they found that such cells have a lower chance of being rejected by the body than other cells.
“I am sure it will revolutionize the way we will do research and also transplantation medicine,” he said.