Israel set to become world center for diabetes research

Israel’s contribution to the worldwide effort to find a cure for diabetes received a big boost last week when a five-year, $30 million program was launched in Jerusalem. The D-Cure (Diabetes Care in Israel) program hopes to bolster Israel’s drive …

Israel’s contribution to the worldwide effort to find a cure for diabetes received a big boost last week when a five-year, $30 million program was launched in Jerusalem.

The D-Cure (Diabetes Care in Israel) program hopes to bolster Israel’s drive to become a world leader in diabetes research. Sixty of the world’s leading diabetes experts and 400 Israeli specialists were on hand for Russell Berrie International Diabetes Symposium, which launched the D-Cure program.

Some five percent of the American population has been diagnosed with the chronic disease, which carries a high risk of complications affecting the heart, blood vessels, vision, kidneys, and the extremities, and the number is expected to double in the next two decades if nothing is done to prevent it. In the U.S. treating diabetes costs about $100 billion a year, with the main treatment being insulin injections.

D-Cure president Prof. Itamar Raz, who is also president of the Israel Diabetes Association and head of the Diabetes Center at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem, said the non-profit umbrella organization would triple the current level of research of the disease and involve more than 300 researchers from medical and scientific centers around the country.

“The disease is a difficult global epidemic that needs unification of forces to wipe it out,” he said. “Israel — despite its small size — can become one of the world’s leading centers – provided there is interdisciplinary cooperation among the researchers here and abroad as well as a significant increase in funding. With the signing of the agreement with the Russel Berrie Foundation, we have met both criteria.”

The Russell Berrie Foundation – named for the late prominent American Jewish philanthropist and headed by his widow, Angelica Berrie, who attended the symposium – has already committed itself to covering the costs of the first two years of the project.

D-Cure activists hope that the program will increase funding for research and improve clinical care for those suffering from diabetes complications which affect the heart, blood vessels, vision, kidneys, sexual potency, and the extremities.

D-Cure, whose chairman is hi-tech pioneer Boaz Misholi (founder of Comverse Technology), aims at the establishment here of three integrated diabetes centers that would combine the highest level of scientific research and clinical care and treat the patient comprehensively for diabetes and all related complications.

Although Raz, an eminent researcher and clinician, said he himself does not expect to discover the cure to diabetes, he hopes that the many young Israeli researchers who will be part of D-Cure will be at the cutting edge of worldwide diabetes research.

“The goals of the program are to enhance the research – both clinical and basic – in the field of diabetes,” Raz told ISRAEL21c. “We have many outstanding young researchers. In fact, our scientific board met today with 12 fantastic young people, and we’re going to help them get the things they need. We’re going to dramatically change the culture of research here. We’re already in the process of supporting 31 grants.”

The project will also send promising young Israeli diabetes researchers to the United States for fellowships. Among the possible avenues towards prevention and cure are gene therapy, a diabetes vaccine, improved oral medications, and turning stem cells into insulin-producing cells for transplant into the body.

“In many fields in diabetes research, Israel is leading the world – in looking for islet cells, and alternatives to beta cells,” said Raz. “But there are a couple of problems with research here. There’s not enough collaboration between centers — everybody’s working in isolation. And there’s not enough opportunity to take first steps. Our purpose is to create a new environment. We’re going to look for the young talent and find those with character, that are going to collaborate with others for the common good and for research in Israel and the world.”

As head of the Hadassah Diabetes Center (HDC), Raz has concentrated on promoting basic research in diabetes and the application of the results in clinical studies involving Type 1 and Type 2 diabetic patients. Raz was instrumentally involved in the development of an experimental drug that could stop the progression of type I diabetes by halting the destruction of insulin-producing cells. Developed by Israeli pharmaceutical company Peptor Ltd., the drug contains a substance that prompts the immune cells to release a harmless anti-inflammatory chemical meant to calm inflamed natural tissue instead of a deadly poison meant for an unwelcome stranger.

Raz said that the development marked the first time that researchers had shown that beta cell destruction could be stopped by outside immunization. But, he added, there are still many unknowns in the beta cell research that he hopes D-Cure will provide the answers for.

“We’re going to look at the important diabetes projects for which Israel can be at the forefront, and work on those. One of the most important steps in finding a cure for diabetes is to be able to assess the amount of beta cells and their function at each moment of the disease – something we don’t know how to do today. But we’ve built an amazing team not just from doctors, but also engineers, chemists, and people working in nanotechnology and we’re hoping to be the first in the world to provide the solution.”

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