New US policy will increase competition for Israeli scientists

Research funding may drop as US grants are redirected domestically.

fetal stem cells 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
fetal stem cells 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli researchers in human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) - who are among the leaders in the world in this field - are likely to face increasing competition for foreign grants as restrictions on US federal funds set down by the Bush administration are rolled back by the Obama administration. Prof. Joseph Itskovitz-Eldor, one of the country's leading embryonic stem cell researchers at Rambam Medical Center and the Technion-Israel Institute and Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that the reversal will "clearly" increase competition. But in the long term, he added, competition is good and can induce Israel to conduct even more intensive and high-level work. The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently began to offer "challenge grants" of huge sums, between $500,000 and $600,000 per research group, to stimulate research in a variety of fields, with embryonic stem cells being among them. "This will be a big boost, especially to American researchers who were afraid to go into stem cell research because of US administration limits. Now there will be a major push," Itskovitz-Eldor said. A survey published in Stem Cells in 2006 put Israeli researchers second after the US in the number of publications on stem cells up to the end of 2005 - way ahead of the UK, Korea, China, Singapore, Australia, Sweden and Canada. Two of the four "best hESC papers" ever published in peer-reviewed journals - according to a ranking by the journal - were written by Prof. Benjamin Reubinoff of Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem, with the others by Itskovitz-Eldor and Dr. Shulamit Levenberg of the Technion. Since then, said the Rambam and Technion obstetrician/gynecologist, "our ranking may have declined a bit, especially as Far Eastern countries have dived into hESC research with enthusiasm." Israelis have had pre-eminence in the field for years because there are no limitations on hESC research here except a ban on using them for human cloning. In addition, Jewish law takes a benevolent - even encouraging - view towards the use of medical research with the potential to save lives and regards life as beginning not at conception - especially outside the body - but only once the embryo is 40 days old and in the uterus. The US policy change may "make it harder to retain our pre-eminence and to get NIH funding," Itskovitz-Eldor said, but "competition is good for promoting greater achievements." Routine applications of hESC discoveries for treating patients with chronic disease will take time, but platform technology for growing cells and drug screening that have been developed in Israel are beginning to enter the market, he said. The severe global economic slowdown, he added, is likely to reduce the amount of funding available for research around the world, but the expected spurt in US funding could partly overcome this. Among the Israeli breakthroughs in hESC research have been the halting of the progress of multiple sclerosis in animal models and the improvement of functioning of rat models with Parkinson's disease. Years ago, Reubinoff and his team, working with colleagues in Singapore and Australia, were the second in the world to produce stem cells from human embryos.