Devorah Talia Gordon
On February 8, representatives of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) and the Israeli Ministry of Science signed a historic research agreement at Cedars-Sinai. When Dr. Julian Gold rose to speak at the ceremony, he explained the most important reason for his presence. It was not because he is chairman of the department of anesthesiology at Cedars-Sinai, nor because he is the mayor of Beverly Hills. Rather, Gold said, “Nine-plus years ago I actually got a stem cell transplant…I was diagnosed with leukemia, and went through the entire thing. I am standing here today as evidence of the benefit of stem cells.”
The applause that followed Gold’s words not only celebrated his recovery, but acknowledged the import of what they had just witnessed: the signing of a major collaborative agreement that will partner Israel with California in the dynamic field of stem cell research. It was signed by Israel’s Ministry of Science, Ofir Akunis, and Dr. Jonathan Thomas, chairman of CIRM.
Shlomo Melmed, MD, Vice-President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Medical Faculty of Cedars-Sinai, explained that Cedars was a fitting venue for signing this agreement, as the hospital has made a major contributions to stem cell research. “[O]ur scientists have shown that stem cell research can reverse the damage from heart attacks, macular degeneration (which can lead to blindness), and is about to embark on very exciting and promising early clinical trials for treating ALS.” Melmed said that these encouraging possibilities make it crucial to collaborate globally on new research.
There isn’t a better choice for collaboration in this field than Israel. As Consul General David Siegel described, “With other countries there have been stops and starts, but with Israel it has been consistent. They are global pioneers in stem cell research, and are very well positioned for long-term research, to achieve breakthroughs.”
However, in order to move quickly on these cutting-edge therapies, funding needs to be in place. With this agreement between CIRM and Israel, there will be funding provided by both entities. “The main goal is to have access to the U.S. market, which is an enormous market, and an opening to the rest of the world,” said Siegel. “Through these partnerships you have quick FDA approval, as well.”
This is the second agreement between Israel and CIRM. The first, signed in 2014, was between CIRM and Israel’s Industrial Center for R&D, which is now supporting joint stem cell research and regenerative medicine projects. This new partnership addresses the academic angle; scientists from both California and Israel can work together in two ways.
Dr. Jonathan Thomas said that first, if there are scientists in Israel and California working on the same project, they can jointly apply to CIRM for funding. Second, under a new program called CIRM 2.0, “We are no longer just waiting, but hunting the best in class projects all around the world to encourage them to develop a California nexus to what they are doing.”
Dr. Thomas was initially inspired by the work of stem cell scientists from Israel at a City of Hope event a number of years ago. “I saw the incredible resource and pool of talent you have and thought this is something we have to make happen.” CIRM has funded over two billion dollars of research and over 70 entities for research institutions, biotech companies and the like. Their research covers over 40 currently incurable conditions.
While Thomas saw the import of getting Israeli scientists on the California side, Israel can benefit not only from the professional aspect of this agreement, but by creating a presence in the U.S. Minister Akunis commented, “Israel has been dealing with the BDS Movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement) over the last five to six years, and it is very strong. I think this is the answer. You know they can speak and speak, and they are very loud as you know…The beauty of Israel is the high-tech innovation…not only with U.S. and Europe, but with places like China, Japan, South Korea, India – this is worldwide.”
Consul General David Siegel expressed the same sentiment, “Five years ago, UC Irvine was the worst campus for Israel. Now it has over twelve agreements with Israel, they go back and forth all the time. We don’t know much about that many bad incidents now. The BDS folks are still there, they are just marginalized. That’s the vision. Let’s do that on every campus.”