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The Miracle of Life

Israel’s biotech field and the stem cells game.

Roy Abrams
June 21, 2012
(Bar Rafaeli (obviously))

Owing in no small measure to the publication of Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s best-selling Start-Up Nation, it’s become almost hackneyed to describe Israel as an oversized incubator for innovative tech ventures perched at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. That impression is no less true for being widely held, however, a fact re-affirmed this week by Google Chairman Eric Schmidt who, while attending a conference in Tel Aviv on Monday, described the country as a “tech miracle.”

In a region parched by despotism, Israel has in many ways fulfilled hopes that it would foster an ethos of entrepreneurship, a view promoted by T.E. Lawrence, among others, and evidenced by the homegrown start-ups that have proliferated like weeds in the Sinai. Even with its early infusion of European talent, who flocked there willy-nilly in the run-up to and aftermath of the Holocaust, Israel has, in this respect, over-delivered on its early promise.

It’s also gratifying to know that its technological prowess has translated into real material benefits for non-Israelis, and not just in the Tech Sector. Israeli scientists are not just galley slaves toiling for the internet and computer Goliaths; they have a presence in biotech as well.

One example of this is Pluristem. This week in Boston, at the 2012 Bio International Convention, Pluristem Therapeutics, a company based in Haifa with a focus on refining the potential clinical applications of stem cells derived from placental tissue, announced a breakthrough in the delivery of their technology to spur the growth of bone marrow. Stem cells extracted from the placenta, not unlike those routinely harvested from umbilical cord-blood post-delivery, can be injected directly into muscle tissue rather than intravenously, significantly broadening the potential pool of recipients of the treatment.

Bone marrow, which functions as a factory for producing the body’s blood cells, is often ravaged by the chemotherapy and radiation that remain the gold standard for eradicating many types of cancer. As a result, patients undergoing either treatment modality are often recipients of bone marrow transplants after the completion of their course of therapy. Pluristem’s discovery, which apparently generates a robust response in mouse models, and at least one human patient, promises to clear the way for a faster and more efficient method of replenishing the body’s supply of bone marrow and blood cells after their depletion during chemo or radiation. It also holds promise for treating diseases of the blood such as leukemia.

The clinical trials necessary to establish both safety and efficacy of this and any other treatment can be an arduous and often disappointing experience. But a company like Pluristem’s research helps establish the potential utility of tissue that would otherwise be discarded, without the controversy attending the use of stems cells derived from human embryos.

The decision to bank cord blood is an elective one. My wife and I opted to, though it’s possible that new developments will render that choice obsolete, as stem cells captured during this collection process from any donor may be sufficiently plastic to adapt to any recipient without generating an immune reaction. But after having met with a genetics counselor specializing in conditions endemic to the Jewish community, a common experience for many Jewish, or part-Jewish couples, it’s impossible not to be aware of the manifold risks inherent in any pregnancy, and the countless biological permutations that account for the traits that combine to make us individuals, some good, some less desirable.

Knowing that an Israeli company like Pluristem is striving to wring life-giving benefits out of what is commonly referred to by the undistinguished term ‘afterbirth’ is a genuinely hopeful development. And no doubt, another of many universe-altering innovations to bloom from the desert.

To which I can only say, l’chaim.

Earlier: Silicon Valley 2.0 [The Scroll]

Roy Abrams is a science writer in New York City.