(photo credit: Inserm)
France and Israel are not currently known as great buddies in the diplomatic sphere, but scientific links are better now than they have been for decades, especially with the signing of an agreement between INSERM (Institute National de la Sant et de la R cherche Medicale) and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
The French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, with 13,000 staffers (including over 2,000 researchers) and an annual budget of 600 million euros, has chosen the Haifa institute as its first Israeli "associate." This first academic cooperation agreement ever signed by France and Israel makes cooperation possible in the field of embryonic stem cell research - in which the Technion is a world leader.
To mark the event, INSERM director Prof. Christian Br chot, a leader in hepatitis research, came to Israel last month for the first time since he was appointed to the prestigious administrative post in 2001. The only French public research body dedicated entirely to human health, INSERM was established in 1964 under the dual auspices of the ministry of health and the ministry of research. Its researchers at 360 separate units - 90 percent of whom work in university hospitals - are committed to studying all diseases, whether common or rare, in the fields of biology, medicine and public health, said the 48-year-old Br chot in an interview with The Jerusalem Post during his visit. More than 300 of his research articles have been published in prominent journals, and his citation index (average number of times a published article is cited by other published articles) is 50.
The interview was actually conducted in Jerusalem's Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School - also a leading center in embryonic stem cell research, where Br chot was meeting with top administrators and researchers and with which the INSERM director hopes his center will have a cooperation agreement in the future. He said he would like to visit Israel again next year for further discussions.
ALTHOUGH THE liver specialist and cellular biologist has a very busy schedule, he remains director of an INSERM research unit and devotes one day a week to basic and clinical studies. Having served as head of the hepatology department at Necker Hospital in Paris, he has contributed to the development of new therapeutic approaches to hepatitis B and C, which develops into liver cancer in some patients infected with the virus. Br chot was also a pioneer in describing the infection mechanisms of hepatitis viruses.
INSERM's main mission, he explained, is to promote the exchange between basic research (which is guided by scientists' curiosity and designed to shed light on the unknown without any specific practical objective) and clinical research, which is conducted with patients to improve diagnosis and treatment. The time it takes to transfer of knowledge from the lab to the bedside, Br chot added, "is shorter than ever before and getting shorter."
INSERM works with some 350 pharmaceutical, biotechnology and biomedical technology companies, with more than 1,000 collaborative research and technology transfer agreements and a portfolio of 502 patent families. Two comparable national institutes are the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the United Kingdom's Medical Research Council (National Institute for Medical Research) in London.
The French national institute is increasingly interested in creating academic exchange agreements with foreign research institutions, as it benefits science both in that country and others. Rapid and efficient scientific evaluation is carried out among the scientists through electronic document management.
"France hasn't had a Nobel Prize in science for a long time," Br chot conceded. "We've attracted many scientists from abroad, but we still lack the mechanisms to bring in the top stars. French universities don't have the freedom to create attractive positions for researchers and entice the best people," he added. "It's a very conservative system. But in Israel, I have learned that the universities do have independent power."
There must be a balance between tenure and non-tenured positions, he explained. Researchers who get tenure early may be discouraged from conducting rigorous research afterwards, while young scientists who have to wait too long before getting tenure may get discouraged and go elsewhere.
"It's a problem all over the world. But I have noticed that at Hadassah, the situation is very impressive. Researchers of all ages are encouraged with incentives to conduct research while they treat patients."
The first of INSERM's foreign agreements was with the University of Glasgow, which awarded Br chot an honorary doctorate. INSERM scientists are collaborating on cancer research with counterparts in Scotland, combining teams from Dundee and Toulouse Universities. Cooperation with Scotland has also been launched in parasitology as part of joint research on malaria.
Two years ago, INSERM signed an international collaborative research agreement - its first in North America - with the University of Pittsburgh; this agreement is aimed at sharing technologies and scientific strategies in the field of adult stem cells. Similar agreements were signed with research institutes in Montreal, Shanghai and Quito (Ecuador).
As American embryonic stem cell research has been stymied by the Bush Administration's strict limits on using existing stem cell lines and barring federal funds from anyone who does, Israel has had a clear advantage: Jewish law encourages research to fight disease and save lives, even with the use of day-old embryos, which are not regarded as living beings but only having the potential for life.
Thus INSERM jumped at the chance to collaborate with Technion and Rambam Medical Center Prof. Joseph Itskovitz-Eldor, one of the world's leading experts in embryonic stem cells. These cells have generated a great deal of excitement among scientists because of their uncanny ability to differentiate into any of the huge variety of cells present in the body, from nerve and muscle cells to liver cells. But it is hard to direct stem cells to produce a specific cell type, which is essential if they are to be used to repair damaged organs.
THE RESULT of the French government decision was the establishment of Insertech, the new center formally approved by the French government and created by the document signed by Br chot and Technion president Prof. Yitzhak Apeloig. Asked how the collaboration with the Technion came about, the INSERM director said: "Our Prof. Daniel Aberdam, a senior INSERM researcher and expert in stem cells and skin in Nice, has had ongoing connections with Prof. Itskovitz-Eldor, and praised him highly. We were very impressed by the solid ground and the high quality and atmosphere of research at the Technion."
Br chot noted that 160,000 euros per year allocated by both INSERM and the Technion will not go for constructing or outfitting labs but to finance positions for engineers and scientists over four years (renewable for another four).
The signing ceremony was the festive conclusion of a French-Israeli conference on embryonic stem cells that attracted 15 leading French researchers, as well as numerous Israelis, in the field
Itskovitz-Eldor and his Technion team have earned headlines in recent years with breakthroughs in their field.
Way back in 1998, Itskovitz-Eldor and scientists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison reported in Science that they had used defrosted human embryos (donated by couples undergoingin-vitro fertilization who did not want any more children), cultured and differentiated them randomly. In 2005, Itskovitz-Eldor and colleagues became the first in the world to have induced embryonic stem cells to differentiate into the cells that make up blood vessels and then to form the vessels themselves. This was aimed at the possible culture of blood vessels to repair the heart and other organs; the development could also be used to develop new weapons in the war against cancer.
More recently, Itskovitz-Eldor and Technion colleague Prof. Lior Gepstein became the first in the world to create contracting heart cells from human embryonic stem cells and successfully transplant them into pig hearts so that they function as biological pacemakers. The research, published in Nature Biotechnology, showed that the cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells) created from tiny human embryos integrated functionally into the pigs' hearts and opened the possibility of eventually using human embryonic stem cells to repair damaged human hearts. Ultimately, such cell therapies might be used in addition to or in place of mechanical pacemakers.
Still, while very promising, this field of research has a long way to go: The tiny cardiomyocytes would have to function for a whole lifetime and assist or replace mechanical pacemakers, whose batteries have to be changed periodically. In addition, researchers have to learn to create unlimited amounts of differentiated heart cells from embryonic stem cells to regenerate and repair hearts suffering from cardiac insufficiency.
Br chot noted that INSERM has done some collaborative work with Arab countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, but that that the level of research in such countries, while good, is certainly not at the high level of that in Israel.