A would-be Jewish astronaut and the search for the origins of life

Jerusalem-based scientist Gary Steinman's quest for answers has led him to an incredible career.

December 24, 2016 09:03
Gary Steinman

Gary Steinman relaxes with his wife, Ricki, outside their Jerusalem home recently. (photo credit: ELISSA EINHORN)

What is the origin of life? Dr. Gary Steinman, PhD, has been chasing the answer to this question his entire life.

“How did life come about on earth?” he asks. “How did amino acids and proteins develop?” His quest for answers has provided Steinman with a career that goes something like this: chemist/biochemist-turned-professor- turned-astronaut-turned-medical-product-development-director-turned-doctor- turned-author-turned-university department chair-turned associate professor.

The predecessor to all of these achievements, however, was an all-American high-school science fair.

“One year, I won for developing a treatment for polycythemia, a condition where there are too many red blood cells,” Steinman explains matter- of-factly. “The second time I won, it was for developing an improved method for storing blood in a blood bank.”

This scientist’s career path hasn’t exactly been a straight line, nor has the road he has traveled to get there. Detroit- born, and raised Flint, Michigan, Steinman now calls Jerusalem his home after many stops in between, including one that was almost out of this world.

NASA comes knocking, but first… Not long after the dust settled on his science-fair trophies, Steinman was off to East Lansing and Michigan State University where he completed a joint BA/ MA program in chemistry and biochemistry, respectively.

Gary Steinman the research being conducted on the twin rate phenomenon in a Brazilian town (photo credit: Courtesy)

He then accepted an invitation from Melvin Calvin, the 1961 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, to join his lab at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his doctorate in biophysics.

Switching coasts, the newly-minted PhD was welcomed by Penn State as an assistant professor in the university’s Department of Biochemistry.

Then an ad in a science journal caught Steinman’s eye.

The year was 1967. NASA was completing its Gemini program and about to begin the Apollo program.

Until then, only experienced pilots who were astronauts were able to participate in NASA programs.

Enter Gary Steinman and his curiosity for the genesis of life.

“I wanted to be in the forefront of the origins of life, so being in the program would help me be more instrumental in developing that research,” he explains of his motivation to answer the ad.

“I was in the first group of scientists that NASA recruited and was sought out to look for prebiotic conditions on the moon and other planets.”

Following a battery of physical and psychological tests at the San Antonio, Texas, Aerospace Center, Steinman received the following acceptance notice: “It is the recommendation of the School of Aerospace Medicine that Dr. Steinman should be considered qualified for space crew duties.”

This Jewish astronaut was about to take flight.

“It is still exciting to relive,” Steinman says of the events from nearly five decades ago.

The excitement, it turned out, was short -lived.

Shabbat observant, the new astronaut met with Alan Shepard, one of the original NASA Mercury Seven astronauts who, in May 1961, made the first manned Mercury flight. Steinman asked him one question: “What happens if there is a Saturday launch?” Shepard’s response was not what he had hoped for. “There is nothing to do about it,” he told him.

“There is no room for variation.”

Steinman made the difficult decision to drop out of the program and, as with many crossroads in his life, is philosophical about the missed opportunity, saying, “It was very disappointing, but these are the choices you make in life.”

Precise research being conducted by Steinman in Brazil, as featured on a National Geographic television show (photo credit: Courtesy)

The doctor is in

Six months after his astronaut career came to a halt, the scientist received a call that would bring him to Israel to become managing director for Ames-Yissum Ltd., a research development company affiliated with the Hebrew University.

Seven years after his first trip to Israel in 1961, where he worked for six months in what is now Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, Steinman was charged with overseeing the production of medical diagnostic products.

Four years and $7 million in exported goods later, he was recognized by then-president Zalman Shazar as a “Distinguished Exporter.”

“I think God knew all along that this was the plan,” he says, referring to his decision to leave NASA. “But then I had another decision to make. Should I stay or should I go?” Although he found success in Israel, Steinman had always been interested in medicine. He discovered a unique program at the University of Miami that would allow those who already earned a PhD to complete a medical degree in 18 months, as opposed to four years. One of 20 candidates accepted out of 1,100, he completed his degree in Florida and headed to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York to do his residency.

“I like medicine, surgery, psychology, and it’s great delivering babies,” he says of his choice to become an ob-gyn.

He should know, since he delivered four of his seven children (and performed the brit mila for his two sons). He also delivered the only set of identical quadruplets born in 1997 without the help of fertility treatments.

After teaching at New York’s Touro Medical School, Steinman decided to return to Israel. He joined Hadassah University Medical Center’s ob-gyn staff and developed an interest in twins –beyond just delivering them – and autism.

The former led to his being featured on a National Geographic television show and the latter to one of his many books, The Cause of Autism: Concepts and Misconceptions.

“There is a town in Brazil that has a high rate of twins and it was rumored that Josef Mengele did something to women while he was there to cause twins,” Steinman explains of the National Geographic program, quickly dispelling the premise and explaining, “It has to do with inbreeding among the population and the twin gene being transmitted between family members.”

Here again, though, the scientist’s research with twins led to the connection between insulin-like growth factor, or IGF, and autism, which impacts one in 68 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

IGF’s function is to stimulate myelin, a sheath that forms around the nerve cells and that causes nerve impulses to go faster. Without this sheath, nerves are miswired.

“In twins, there is a higher level of IGF in the mother,” Steinman says, “while children born with autism have a deficiency of IGF as fetuses.

Autistic children between the ages of one and four also have lower levels of IGF. Right now, the only hope to repair damaged nerves is stem-cell research.”

Steinman documented his five years of research in his 2014 book, written entirely by medical students under his supervision – a first in the profession. His newest discovery is that two existing drugs, when taken together, could be a treatment for autism as well as multiple sclerosis. It will take a minimum of five years for the drugs to reach the market, but he is patient.

“When I was living in Queens, a rabbi had a severely affected son with autism,” he says. “I wished I could do something for him. I couldn’t do something for him then, but perhaps I can do something for other children in the future.”

In addition to continuing his lifelong search for the origins of life, he currently is an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at Touro College in Jerusalem. His list of books and publications, which began in 1962, continues to grow as does his list of patents, which currently total six.

In looking back at the choices he has had to make and the paths that have led him to where he is today, his only regret is time lost with his children due to the strains of such a demanding career.

“I’m very lucky,” the former high school Science Fair winner-turned-astronaut- turned-doctor-turned-author-turned- professor says. “I’ve lived a life most people couldn’t even imagine.”

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