From the title of this post, I bet none of you would ever guess that the “they” in question refers to “Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.”

A few weeks ago, I attended Hadassah’s National Convention in Washington, DC. For any of you who believe that Hadassah’s just a bunch of blue-haired ladies, you don’t know about Hadassah’s support of the Israeli hospitals that bear its name, and the amazing medical research that’s being conducted there. While I was working there, I had the chance to see the Trauma Unit and visited with patients in the Burns Unit (those images stay with you), and saw how everyone is treated equally there (even in bureaucracy–not sure if protektsia helps at all when it comes to hospital procedures). But even if you’re unaware, the Nobel Prize Nominations Committee isn’t…Hadassah was nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize:

Their nominations cited three areas in which Hadassah Medical Organization has excelled in promoting peace in the region: the ability to maintain the value of equal treatment for all people despite treating more terror victims than any other medical center; the model of cooperation and coexistence set by the mixed staff of people of all faiths; and the medical organization’s ongoing initiatives in creating bridges for peace even throughout the intifada.

In addition to inroads to peace through medicine, Hadassah researchers are blazing a trail that their American colleagues cannot fully follow: using human embryonic stem cells to improve the functioning of a laboratory rat with Parkinson’s Disease.

For those of you unfamiliar with what stem cells are and the potential that they represent, here’s a summary (from a Hadassah press release about the research).

Human embryonic stem cells, which can reproduce endlessly in culture and mature into any type of cell in the body, have sparked wide international interest because of their potential to serve as an endless source of cells for transplantation. They hold the promise of improving the functioning of people suffering from a wide range of disorders, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes or heart failure. This is the first time that the potential ability of transplanted human embryonic stem cells has been demonstrated in an animal model with Parkinson’s disease. The research is the latest stage in a long series of trials aimed at using human embryonic stem cells to find a cure for people who suffer from Parkinson’s disease.

How close is the cure? Hard to say. They’ve been working with rats, not humans. So it’s probably years. But probably not decades. One of the problems is that, even though (as the press release notes) the research was funded in part by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a component of the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the United States, on the whole, the US remains relatively uninvolved in stem cell research. Apparently (and I’m just learning about all of this stuff now), there’s a difference in the rules governing private and federal funding, and that President Bush makes a distinction between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells:

Bush supports only limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and has argued that life should not be created for the purpose of being destroyed during research. Private funding on these cells, however, is not restricted by federal law. (FOXnews.com)

The problem is that embryonic stem (ES) cells are infinitely better than adult stem cells. ES cells are undifferentiated and are pluripotent (have unlimited potential–they can “grow up” to be any cells they want, and scientists can “encourage” them to develop into neural cells or blood cells, or a million other types of cells that this non-science major can’t even tell you about). In theory, scientists could encourage pluripotent cells to become (and replace) whatever cells have malfunctioned in patients with diseases and disorders ranging from diabetes to Parkinson’s and everywhere in between and beyond.

Dr. Benjamin Reubinoff, the Director of Hadassah’s Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research at the Goldyne Savad Institute of Gene Therapy and the Department of Gynecology, explained to Convention delegates that increased funding and research by the United States would enable researchers to make major strides in the field.

Just last week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist expressed his support of legislation to expand federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research so long as it stays “within ethical bounds.” Still, there’s much opposition from Republicans, including the veto-holding President, on the issue of taking a life –in this case, the six-day-old embryos used for research–without its consent in order to save another’s life:

The National Pro-Life Action Center said the crux of the issue is not whether studying more embryonic cells will yield more medical benefits but whether “it is ever morally licit to take the life of one innocent human being to potentially benefit another. The answer to that is unequivocally ‘No.’ It is never morally acceptable.”

In Israel, Reubinoff said, even more Orthodox authorities are in favor of embryonic stem cell research because they recognize the good it can do to alleviate the suffering of many people. I’m sure if you look hard enough, you’ll find someone who’s against it, but it really impressed me that, in a country where so little is agreed upon by different denominations, it is the issue of pikuah nefesh (saving a life) that takes precedence and creates unity.

To learn more about stem cell research:
The Hadassah Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center
Wikipedia
Israel Stem Cell Consortium
Coriell Institute and the Technion
Aish: Is Stem Cell Research Ethical?

About the author

Esther Kustanowitz

For more posts by Esther, see EstherK.com, MyUrbanKvetch.com and JDatersAnonymous.com.

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