US-Canadian fund looks to Israeli cancer researchers for answers

At first it was founded to stem the scientific ‘brain drain’ from Israel, but the Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) now says it is looking to Israeli scientists for a prescription to stop cancer deaths. They recently moved a step …

At first it was founded to stem the scientific ‘brain drain’ from Israel, but the Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) now says it is looking to Israeli scientists for a prescription to stop cancer deaths. They recently moved a step closer.

A team of researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, led by ICRF-supported scientist Professor Yosef Yarden, has identified a specific protein that enables breast cancer cells to metastasize and spread to other organs.

The team hopes that the discovery will facilitate the development of drugs that block or inhibit the production of this protein to prevent metastasis in breast and other cancers. Metastasis, when cancer cells break away from the original tumor and spread via the blood stream to other organs, is the leading cause of cancer death.

According to the National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC), breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for women worldwide. NBCC estimates that some 3.3 million women in the United States are living with breast cancer: about 2.3 million who have been diagnosed and an estimated 1 million who do not yet know they have the disease. The NBCC estimates that about 2,030 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in men in the United States in 2007.

The work by the team at the Weizmann Institute was published recently online in Nature Cell Biology. It identifies “tensins,” a family of proteins that stabilizes the cell structure, as a controlling mechanism for the spread of breast cancer. The scientists discovered a link between a specific tensin and a substance called growth factor which signals cells to spread.

The team examined the effects of drugs that block the effect of the growth factor. In patients who received the drugs, the harmful tensin proteins disappeared from the cancer cells.

“The mechanism we identified is clinically important. It can predict the development of metastasis and possibly how the cancer will respond to treatment,” Yarden, of the Weizmann Institute’s Biological Regulation Department, said in a statement.

The team, which was composed of researchers from Israel, the United States and Portugal, also included ICRF-funded scientist Professor Gideon Rechavi of the Sheba Medical Center, a past ICRF grantee and a member of ICRF’s International Scientific Council.

“Each of us would like to play a role in bringing an end to the cancer crisis,” Yashar Hirshaut, ICRF International Chairman, told ISRAEL21c. “ICRF scientists are providing the crucial ideas that are going to lead to the next generation of drugs.”

The ICRF, which provided Yarden a grant in 2006, was founded in 1975 by a group of American and Canadian researchers, determined to harness Israel’s educational and scientific resources in the fight against cancer

It’s the single largest source of private funds for cancer research in Israel and has awarded 1,578 grants valued at more than $33 million to scientists at all of Israel’s leading institutions.

ICRF chairman Hirshaut, an oncologist and associate professor at Weill-Cornell Medical College – New York Hospital in New York, said that ICRF is dedicated to supporting Israeli scientists in their mission to eradicate cancer.
Scientists who have made strides in that direction include the first two Israelis to win Nobel prizes in the sciences – Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko – for helping to understand how the human body gives the “kiss of death” to faulty proteins to defend itself from diseases like cancer.

Additional ICRF-supported scientists recognized for their achievements include Yair Reisner and his team which developed a novel bone marrow transplant technique for leukemia patients; Moshe Oren whose early research discovered the location and revealed the chemical nature of the common protein p53, a tumor suppressor that prevents tumor growth; Alberto Gabizon and his team which developed Doxil, an FDA-approved drug used in the treatment of breast and ovarian cancer, as well as Kaposi Sarcoma; Eli Canaani and his team which identified the molecular structure of the “Philadelphia Chromosome,” the first abnormal chromosome found in leukemia. The “Philadelphia Chromosome” research led to the development of Gleevec, a drug that directly targets cancer cells and is now being used to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia.

Hirshaut added that through these discoveries the ICRF is “creating the base for an international pharmaceutical industry coming to Israel.”

“We have insisted on preventing the brain drain, and have developed the scientific leadership in Israel and some outstanding people,” Hirshaut said. “It is sophisticated and exciting work, which the world is waiting for. Israel has the people that can do this work.”

In addition to the raw talent in Israel, Hirshaut said from a financial perspective, research dollars went further in Israel. He said the ICRF monies are used solely to provide the “everyday running materials” that permit the scientists, most of whom already are employed by universities, to conduct their research.

“The ICRF provides a vehicle to make important, substantial contributions to the solution of the cancer problem in sums that can be dealt with by many people,” Hirshaut said.

On September 5th, the ICRF will hold its Annual Scientific Awards Evening at which time it will announce its 2007-2008 grants.

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