Photo Credit: Bar-Ilan University; Rambam Medical Center
Dr. Sivan Spitzer (L) and Prof. Naim Shehadeh.

The Azrieli Faculty of Medicine of Bar-Ilan University and The Russell Berrie Foundation are announcing today the creation of The Russell Berrie Galilee Diabetes SPHERE, a comprehensive program designed to transform diabetes care in Israel’s socioeconomically disadvantaged northern Galilee region — while simultaneously spurring innovations in diabetes treatment and prevention that can be applied around the world.

Diabetes is on the rise globally, with the number of diabetics quadrupling since 1980. In Israel as elsewhere, socioeconomically disadvantaged populations are at greater risk of developing and suffering from the most severe effects of the disease. One million Israelis are expected to be diagnosed with diabetes by 2040, a disproportionate number of them from the economically disadvantaged and ethnically diverse Galilee region.

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SPHERE, which stands for the Social Precision-medicine Health Equity Research Endeavour, aims to have an immediate impact on quality of life in the Galilee and a long-term impact on diabetes care and treatment worldwide. It aims to integrate aspects of the field that are often siloed, by bringing together a broad spectrum of scholars; health care, social services and industry professionals; religious community leaders; women’s organizations; municipalities; NGOs; and Israel Diabetes Association centers.

The Russell Berrie Galilee Diabetes SPHERE is being established by Bar-Ilan University’s Azrieli Faculty of Medicine, located in the Galilee region, and supported by a $20 million lead grant from The Russell Berrie Foundation.

“The need for innovative models and approaches is expected to be greater than ever in the COVID-19 and post-pandemic era due to its amplified effect on chronic disease health inequities,” said Azrieli Faculty of Medicine Dean Prof. Karl Skorecki, who initiated SPHERE. “Having thoroughly examined the diabetes landscape in the Galilee, we believe that this coordinated effort will lead to substantial impact and consistent and sustainable improvement in the region, as well as set an example for other initiatives dealing with chronic diseases in geographic and social peripheral communities.”

“We are honored and proud to partner with The Russell Berrie Foundation and with communities throughout the Galilee in this extraordinary endeavor,” said Bar-Ilan University President Prof. Arie Zaban. “Resolving health inequities by integrating academic excellence with partnership and social accountability will have a deep impact in Israel and, in time, become a global example.”

“We see this investment as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve quality of life in the Galilee region and substantially reduce healthcare disparities, while also making a significant contribution to the global field of diabetes treatment and prevention,” said Ruth Salzman, CEO of The Russell Berrie Foundation. “SPHERE is a holistic effort that replaces silos with synergy—by bringing together researchers, community-based healthcare providers, medical students, and NGOs. We believe this approach will produce a virtuous cycle, in which patients in the Galilee will benefit immediately and best practices developed on the ground will inform diabetes care and prevention in Israel and worldwide.”

Internationally-renowned endocrinologist Prof. Naim Shehadeh will serve as director of SPHERE. Prof. Shehadeh is President of the Israeli Diabetes Association and currently serves as Director of Diabetes Endocrinology and Metabolism at Rambam Medical Center. Dr. Sivan Spitzer, who will serve as deputy director, is an expert in identifying, designing, and evaluating organizational strategies aimed at reducing health care inequities. Dr. Spitzer is Head of Population Health Education and Principal Investigator of the Health Equity Advancement Lab (HEAL) at the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine. They will be accompanied by a core team including researchers and clinicians representing multiple disciplines, as well as leaders from affiliated regional HMOs and hospitals.

“This is the largest project of its kind in our nation’s history. I believe that it will serve as a stepping stone to forthcoming national and worldwide comprehensive programs, using cutting-edge scientific models for improving health services for disadvantaged communities,” said Prof. Shehadeh. His aims, he said, include a 50% reduction in the conversion rate from pre-diabetes to diabetes and a dramatic increase in the number of diabetes patients whose glucose levels are well-controlled.

Through research, education, and healthcare delivery, SPHERE will incorporate four pillars of activity: prevention, control, care, and the search for a cure. Diabetes prevention efforts will include creating community infrastructures to promote a healthy lifestyle as well as health education programs targeting high-risk populations and pre-diabetes patients. Diabetes control efforts will involve the implementation of new strategies, marrying precision medicine with social determinants of health to improve clinical management and mitigate complications. SPHERE will transform diabetes care by developing an integrated, inter-organizational model, in which healthcare providers and communities work together.

When it comes to the search for a cure for diabetes, the Galilee region is rich with potential for researchers because it is home to the most diverse set of population isolates in the world, including Muslim Arabs, Christian Arabs, Jews, Druze, Bedouins, Circassians, and Maronites. SPHERE’s research program will identify genetic mutations that cause diabetes and are specific to particular population isolates—leading to tailored medical care for patients, as well as the development of new diagnostic and prevention tools.

The SPHERE strategic plan was developed following a year-long process of intensive transdisciplinary, regional, national, and international consultation. The $20 million gift from The Russell Berrie Foundation represents the cornerstone investment in what is envisioned as a ten-year, $75 million program.

“For me, as for millions of people around the world, diabetes is deeply personal,” said Angelica Berrie, President of The Russell Berrie Foundation. “My late husband, Russ Berrie, was a Type 2 diabetic who experienced the devastating impact of this disease. The Russell Berrie Galilee Diabetes SPHERE draws on Israel’s unparalleled expertise in healthcare innovation to change the landscape for future generations.”

The Russell Berrie Galilee Diabetes SPHERE will be launched at a festive ceremony on Tuesday, November 16, at the Safed Cultural Center.

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