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One way to minimize the brain drain of young Israeli scientists to the US would be to promote joint medical research projects funded by foundations that will keep them fulfilled and challenged in Israel, says Prof. Joseph Rosenblatt, a leading oncologist at the University of Miami's Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.
The serious consequences of the scientific brain drain were discussed in the Knesset last week.
Rosenblatt, who studied for four years at a Jerusalem yeshiva high school and speaks fluent Hebrew, was one of some 70 cancer clinicians and basic-research scientists from the US and Canada and a few hundred Israelis who attended the Joint American-Israeli Conference on Cancer at the Jerusalem Renaissance Hotel last week.
Although the primary goal of the first conference, 15 months ago, was to provide moral support during the wave of terrorism, this was not the case this time.
"We wanted to expose young scientists here to the leading experts from the US, show them there doesn't have to such such a chasm between basic research and clinical work - the gap is much smaller in North America - and facilitate informal contacts that have already led to a number of joint projects, data sharing and collaborations and several Israelis going for post-doctoral work in the US," Rosenblatt told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Thursday, the second day of the three-day meeting.
Rosenblatt noted that of all the Israelis who have worked in his Florida lab had returned to Israel and were working in their field. "Most Israelis would prefer to live in Israel if they have the opportunity to do their work," said Rosenblatt, who is associate director of clinical and translational research at his cancer center.
The quality of the conference was so high, he said, that he had learned about cutting-edge Israeli research that had never been presented before anywhere.
Harvard Medical School Prof. Kenneth Anderson, a fervent friend of Israel who is considered the world's leading expert on the incurable blood cancer multiple myeloma, said the "quality of Israeli science is unsurpassed."
He cited the influence of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology Profs. Avram Hershko and Aharon Ciechanover - winners of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation, which led to the development of Velcade, a cancer drug that is proving to be very useful against specific tumors.
Anderson, who is on his first visit to Israel, hinted at the tense atmosphere caused by the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit when he said, "We cancer experts know how precious life is. And we are here to use the power of science to improve the life of patients." He added that "many novel gene-targeted therapies have already been transferred from the bench in the lab to the patient's bedside."
Multiple myeloma, whose cause is unknown, constitutes 1-2 percent of all cancers.
The Jerusalem conference - sponsored by the University of Miami, Johns Hopkins University's Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Hackensack University Cancer Center, the Israel Cancer Association, the Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute (FAMRI) and other donors - "has made us all feel like family, and we will foster these informal contacts," Anderson said.
Prof. Mark Soloway, chairman of the urology department at the University of Miami, spoke of the need to promote early diagnosis of bladder cancer in both the US and Israel, where it is the fifth most common tumor in men and eighth in women, but is not widely known.
Bladder cancer is diagnosed in 40,000 Americans each year and kills 12,000 of them. Many of the cases are caused by smoking or by passive smoking. Although lab tests can point to markers for the cancer, many family physicians know little about it. "If a doctor has a patient who is a smoker and complains of blood in the urine, he should immediately test for bladder cancer," Soloway said.
Many patients have been saved by having their bladder removed and having a replacement formed from a section of their own small intestine.
A retired US airline stewardess who represented FAMRI explained why her organization was so keen on sponsoring cancer research. For many years, she said, when smoking was legal on international flights that lasted as long as 16 hours, "75% of passengers smoked, the air in the cabin was blue-gray, and you couldn't see to the back of the plane. Airline personnel were constantly exposed to tobacco toxins, and many of them developed tumors. Even after smoking was barred, she recalled difficulty persuading passengers to refrain.
"On a flight to Japan, when a man said his wife was sick from the man sitting next to her who was smoking a cigar, and wanted to hit him in the nose, I went over to help. The smoker refused even to look at me. Finally, I told him I hoped he would enjoy his stay on the island of Midway.
"'But I'm going to Tokyo!'" he protested.
"No, you're not," she replied. "Weâ€šre going to land specially and leave you in Midway, and ours is the only airline serving that point. It won't allow you on its planes again. But there is a boat that arrives every two months or so and can pick you up." The offender quickly extinguished his cigar, she said.