Medicine Across Borders: Building a US-Israeli Stem Cell Partnership

Stem Cells for Cartilage Repair

America’s ban on stem cell research in the early 2000’s opened up opportunities for other countries to advance in the field at the US’s expense. In August 9, 2001, President George W. Bush signed an executive order prohibiting the use of federal funding towards embryonic stem cell lines. Because these cells could only be harvested from unborn embryos, this field of research provoked political and ethical controversy. This not only prevented stem cell research from progressing, but also pushed American researchers to move their efforts overseas. By 2006, America fell behind Israel as the world’s leader in the field of regenerative medicine. Unlike the US, Israel owes its technological advancement to its government’s support of stem cell research. Eight years later, President Obama overturned this ban, citing that “these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases.” Since then, America has refocused its attention towards advancing its domestic stem cell research.

Medical breakthroughs in stem cell therapy can relieve financial burdens and save lives. Embryonic stem cells have the ability to differentiate into any cell type, making them useful in replacing damaged cells caused by chronic, incurable diseases. For example, Alzheimer’s disease, a neurodegenerative illness that degrades cognitive function, is currently the 6th leading cause of death in the United States. Every year, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia cost the federal government upwards of two hundred billion dollars. According to Dr. Huntington Potter, a neurobiologist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, an increase in the number of Alzheimer’s patients will lead to the bankruptcy of both Medicare and Medicaid. Diseases like Alzheimer’s continue to cost the federal government money and our country its citizens. Progress in stem cell therapy provides a hopeful solution to a very costly and difficult problem.

Following the 2001 American stem cell ban, Israel, with the help of its supportive government, emerged as a world leader in stem cell research. Unlike the United States, Israel’s government and law fully supports the usage and research of embryonic stem cells, considering it a “mitzvah”, or blessing, to its people. Without ethical and political constraints, Israel flourished in the field. In a 2013 Euro Stem Cell Report on trends, Israel ranked the highest in relative activity, with over 5 times the world activity level in adult stem cell and 2.55 times the world activity level in embryonic stem cell research. Israel’s problem, however, lies in its lack of funding. Dr. Merchav, an Israeli stem cell consultant, believes that the greatest barrier to Israeli advancement is its funding limitations. Being a small state, Israel does not possess the funding capabilities compared to that of a larger state, like the US. Despite its funding issues, Israel’s success and commitment to furthering stem cell therapy has attracted cross-border partnerships with the UK as well as a state funded program in California.  

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown signed a joint declaration in 2008 to establish the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership (BIRAX). Over eight years this program has completed more than ten joint research projects and has been renewed earlier this year. Israel’s Science Ministry and California’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) finalized its joint research agreement with Israel in February of this year. This agreement is the first of its kind; CIRM brings together the two states’ most talented scientists and advances medical treatment for Diabetes, Alzheimer’s and HIV-AIDS. Cross-border partnerships help alleviate the financial burden for research and clinical trials. Israel’s success in cross-border research and development partnerships with the UK and California serves as a model for future negotiations with the United States.

While Israel has expanded its stem cell research globally through bilateral R&D agreements, the United States has adopted a more isolationist policy, meaning that much of its research remains within its borders. Currently, at about 30%, the US ranks among the lowest in stem cell research papers co-authored with another country per year. On the other hand, Israeli stem cell research ranks as one of the highest, collaborating with other countries’ scientists about 70% of the time. While Americans conduct the highest number of clinical stem cell trials compared to other countries, cooperation across states is limited and not every trial produces significant results. Although CIRM’s partnership with Israel serves as a breakthrough in the American stem cell community, the program is funded by state governments and therefore lacks resources that a unified federal government could otherwise provide. According to David Siegel, the consul general of Israel, a stronger partnership between the United States and Israel allows for quicker FDA approval. This could mean more efficient clinical trials and a quicker turnaround time for approval of new stem cell treatments.

Funding stem cell research and collaborating across borders is an investment for the future. According to the 2013 World Stem Cell Summit, expanding networks and facilitating the transfer of knowledge across countries will further clinical trials more quickly and efficiently. For decades, the United States has served as the the model and standard for modern research and development. Collaborating with Israel would expedite the research process and bring relief to people at home and abroad. Before American stem cell research can expand, our country must first educate the electorate on the benefits of regenerative medicine so that a cohesive, bipartisan stem cell agenda can be made. The health of our affected citizens is not a partisan or negotiable issue. Progress in stem cells has already brought relief to people suffering from leukemia and multiple sclerosis, saving the federal government billions of dollars. With an informed and willing constituency, American politicians can push for and form cross-border research and development agreements. Only then can we hope to extend the field of stem cell research from a possibility to a reality.  

COMMENT

  • It would appear that significant progress has been or should have been made since this article was printed. Is there an update available? Thank you.

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