Almost three years ago, to prepare for my meeting with Phil Jacobs to discuss becoming managing editor of Washington Jewish Week, I conducted a very unscientific study of what various people would want to read in their local Jewish paper. My parents, whom I chose to represent their demographic, told me they and their friends were interested in reading about Alzheimer’s. Many of their friends were caregivers to parents or spouses who were suffering from that affliction. So when Frandee Woolf, executive director of American Friends of Hebrew University Mid-Atlantic Region, invited me to have breakfast with Hermona Soreq, I jumped at the chance.
Soreq is the Charlotte Slesinger professor of molecular neuroscience at The Hebrew University’s Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences. Her biotech start-up company, Ester Neurosciences, is developing therapeutic products for the treatment of myasthenia gravis, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and acute stress reactions. What she explained to me is that there is a spectrum of aging — much in the way there is a spectrum of autism. There are people who do well, who are clear minded well into their 90s. She told me the story of a friend who was complaining of a back ache to his son. His son replied, “Dad, what do you expect at 98?” And she said, what she wants to know is what is their secret? What is it that those at that end of the aging spectrum do?
Currently, by the time one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it is too late. The nerves are damaged beyond repair. What is left is palliative care — steps that can be taken to ease the symptoms and possibly slow the progression of the disease. She said every disease is caused by elements from lifestyle, environment and genetics. Scientists are scanning brains of current patients and studying advanced DNA sequencing to analyze what is happening. The hope is that tests will be developed that can diagnose Alzheimer’s earlier. As we understand with cancer, earlier detection means better odds at fighting the disease.
I asked her what she needs to find a cure (although she corrected me that there really isn’t a “cure”). I expected to hear that she needs money to fund labs or research, after all, wasn’t that her purpose for being in the States this week. Instead, she said that what she needs is a “new generation of scientists.”
She explained that Hebrew University is training this new generation. In her Center for Excellence in Neuroscience, students are adept at many disciplines — molecular neuroscience, computational neuroscience, robotics, behavioral science (and probably more, but I was an English major). All are needed. By way of example, computational neuroscience helps create models that analyze the buildup of plaque in the nerves.
Robotics will explain how the brain talks to the limbs and allow us to figure out how to activate a machine with brain power. To further explain how this is different, Soreq got her Ph.D. in biochemistry. Her Ph.D. candidates are getting degrees in physics, computer science, math, behavioral science; those degrees take longer to get and involve bigger sacrifice.
On average, Israeli Ph.D. candidates are five years older than their counterparts in the U.S. They have served in the military, have families and mortgages. They are serious and committed. “By the time they get to Ph.D., these are determined people,” Soreq explained. They’re not looking at other options.
I asked her what it is about Israel that produces such scientific and medical innovations. She said that the state of Israel invested a lot in entrepreneurship. “It’s a substitute for natural resources. We have no land, no water. We have a lot of new immigrants with no jobs, no housing, no common language. We have to be entrepreneurs to make work.”
She sees a difference when she teaches in Israel — nothing is accepted, the professor is not the authority. Students push back and question and innovate. “We are a small nation that continues to survive against all odds,” the professor explained. “That characteristic, that brain of the people, made it survive.”
Still, funding can be an issue. Israel is part of the European Research Foundation. The Israeli government participates in this foundation, which means her scientists are eligible to submit research applications to get funding. This is not the case in the U.S. where Israeli scientists are international and have to prove that their research is better than their peers in the U.S. The likelihood for funding is less.
I asked her about the recent ASA boycott and she explained that what they worry about in Israel is how the BDS movement impacts the European academic community. When research is submitted to academic journals for publication (a critical step in garnering funds), a paper from an Israeli scientist may be rejected because someone on the panel has been influenced by BDS. But, she says, these panels are anonymous, and she and others are not told the reason why the research paper wasn’t published.
Soreq also works to halt the “brain drain” — Israeli students who leave Israel and set up labs in the U.S. Funding is needed to help this new generation of scientists start labs and use their unique Israeli brains to find the answers. And, just as we fight back against BDS, we need to fight for their ability to do the work they are being trained to do, she said.
To learn more how you can help, go to American Friends of Hebrew University, www.AFHU.org.