Latest update: July 24th, 2012
Israeli scientific advancements in the use of stem cells to treat a variety of serious and debilitating illnesses may now be credited with advancing the Torah learning of a generation of students at the Mir Yeshiva, thanks to the miraculous recovery of their Rosh Yeshiva from ALS, courtesy of the breakthrough Israeli treatment.
A clinical trial of ALS patients conducted by Israel’s BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics shows their therapy, NurOwn, is safe and well-tolerated by patients, and not only capable of halting the progress of the illness, but can actually reverse the course of the disease, improving the breathing, muscle strength, and speech capabilities of sufferers with nerve damage in the brain and spine.
Four months ago, when Rabbi Rafael Shmuelevitz was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, he was given just 2-4 years to live until he succumbed to the most severe of the neuromuscular diseases. Soon his speech became difficult to understand, and he was confined to a wheelchair.
Yet just one month after beginning an experimental treatment spearheaded at Hadassah, Rabbi Shmuelevitz was back on his feet, teaching again at the 7,000-student Mir, as he has done for the last 30 years. His recovery was not only touted as a miracle and a joy for the students of the Mir yeshiva, but is being called the first ever recovery from ALS.
Last May, Israel’s Ministry of Health granted approval to biotech company Brainstorm, which specializes in stem cell use, and Hadassit, a company associated with Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center, to begin the first-ever clinical trial of stem cell therapy to delay or halt the advancement of ALS.
Just days after his first treatment, his speech began to improve, his breathing became easier, and he was able to walk unassisted. “My students understand every word I say. It’s truly a miracle from Heaven,” the Rabbi said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 news. “I am a new person as a result of the treatment I received.” Click here for video in Hebrew.
“I am very excited by the incredibly impressive positive effect in this case, Prof. Dimitrios Karussis, Director of the Multiple Sclerosis Center at Hadassah Ein-Kerem University Hospital told Channel 2. “ I was pleasantly surprised, I was optimistic, but not to such a degree,” he said with a laugh.
Researchers and doctors caution that, for now, this is an isolated case, but say the findings are extremely encouraging and could signal a medical breakthrough. The other 12 patients participating in the trial have also witnessed encouraging results, but not to such a grand scale. Patients in the trial were transplanted with stem cells taken from their own bone marrow and treated with NurOwn stem cell technology.
Some attribute the extreme nature of Rabbi Shmuelevitz’s recovery to prayer rallies held by students of the Mir in Jerusalem and the Ponevitch yeshiva in Bnei Brak, as well as the saying of psalms and the dedication of the learning of pages upon pages of Gemara to Rabbi Shmuelevitz’s health. No one, however, is denying that BrainStorm’s technology has something to offer those who may have less spiritual leverage.
BrainsStorm President Chaim Lebovits said that preliminary results are so promising that stem cell therapy may soon be used to cure ALS, as well as to treat multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.
A Phase I/II trial to measure the safety and preliminary efficacy of BrainStorm’s therapy is underway at Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center. The company submitted the interim report to Israel’s Health Ministry.
BrainStorm is awaiting U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to begin ALS trials at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Last year, the FDA granted NurOwn orphan drug designation, providing financial incentives for its development.
BrainStorm’s miraculous success is just the latest development in a field of study long dominated by Israel. In 2006, Bar-Ilan University made headlines when human nerve cells infected with the familial dysautonomia disease were grown in a petri dish to test possible treatments for the peripheral nervous system ailment found exclusively among Ashkenazi Jews.
That same year, in the United States, President George W. Bush vetoed a bill which would have awarded federal funding for stem cell research.
Almost across the board, leaders in Jewish thinking and religion have agreed that research and use of stem cells is permissible according to Jewish law.
In 2004, the US National Institute of Health approved the Technion university as a training center for embryonic stem cell technology and funded two courses – one there and one at Johns Hopkins University – with a $450,000 grant for three years.
In 2006, Israeli researchers were found to be the world’s most prolific authors of scientific articles on stem cells, according to an article published in The Scientist.
In December 2011, Israeli researchers from Rambam Medical Center in Haifa and the Technion medical school isolated cells in embryonic stem cells capable of repairing damaged tissue, and fixed damaged tissue in mice for the first time, with expectation that the treatment could be used to repair human tissue and organs in the future, particularly those damaged due to insufficient blood supply.
The team’s findings were published in the November 2011 issue of “Circulation,” the journal of the American Heart Association. The journal also dedicated an editorial to the findings, because of their great medical significance.
Technion scientists created cancerous cells for use in studying the effects of different anti-cancer drugs, and are working to perfect the creation of tendons from stem cells.
In May 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that Technion researches had removed skin cells from two patients with heart failure, returned the cells to an embryonic state, and transformed them into beating heart cells capable of communicating with the patients’ existing heart tissue.
Challenges include the risk of stem cells to lose control and become cancerous and difficulty in attuning stem cell-derived cardiac cells to normal heart rhythms
Yet research presses on, with research on ways to regenerate heart tissue on the forefront.
A recent study by researchers at Hebrew University in Jerusalem has shown the ability of stem cells to perpetually renew themselves and turn into all kinds of mature cells. The breakthrough illustrates the ability of stem cells to be effective in treating diseases characterized by cell death.
The findings of their study appeared in the journal Nature Communications and was funded by grants from health ministries and scientific organizations in Israel and around the world.
About the Author: Malkah Fleisher is a graduate of Cardozo Law School in New York City. She is an editor/staff writer at JewishPress.com and co-hosts a weekly Israeli FM radio show. Malkah lives with her husband and two children on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
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