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. (

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
Israel Stem Cell Consortium
Coriell Institute and the Technion
Aish: Is Stem Cell Research Ethical?

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Esther Kustanowitz

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  • US researchers aren’t banned from embryonic stem cell research. They just had never received federal funding to do such research. Bush administration gave funding for research with certain groups of embryonic stem cells that were already collected but didn’t authorize federal funding for research that would create new embryonic stem cells.
    CA had a proposal to give state money for this research, I don’t know if it passed or not. I’m leaning towards either it didn’t or it hasn’t been voted on yet.
    Or at least, this is what I understood when I was trying to figure out what was up, embryo wise. Correct me everyone, I know you will!

  • Maybe we should ask our very own Hadassah Lady, Jewish Mother, what she thinks of the raging stem cell debate, and how it relates to marriage. By the way, just so I ask before she does, Esther, is Dr. Reubinoff single?

  • Lynn, I think you’re right. But still, the refusal to allow federal funding of these initiatives is forcing research outside of the US. The way I understand it, federal funding would help, a lot, but Bush will never let it happen on his watch.

    Michael, Michael, Michael. Why do you start? As far as I know Dr. R is not single. But another one of the Israeli doctors at the Hadassah Convention is, and believe me, the woman who introduced him made sure all 2500 women in the room knew it.

  • Hey Esther, I think I was on your train yesterday, you were seated w/ 2 women, then one got off. I wasn’t sure. But the conversation was about marriage, relationships, it was interesting. 3 Jewish hotties shooting the shit, it was so cool. Sorry about eavesdropping but I was like 3 rows away.

  • You’re forgiven. But mostly because it wasn’t me. My train trips yesterday were solitary, magazine-reading affairs.

  • California definitely passed the initiative to start supporting stem-cell research:

    Even if the Feds don’t ban embryonic stem-cell research, it definitely has a chilling effect. Graduate students will be reluctant to study stem cells if they know that they’ll have a hard time securing funding (NIH & NSF grants are really important), therefore there will be fewer future professors studying stem cells. At the same time, countries like Great Britain, Israel, and South Korea are jumping ahead, with full governmental backing (or, at least no government restrictions!).

    One thing I always interject into any conversation about embryonic stem cells: Where do these embryos come from? Are they from aborted fetuses? Are they surgically-removed from pregnant women? No! Embryonic stem-cells come from fertilization clinics, where more fertilized eggs are produced per-couple than are desired (this is done so that out of, say, 15 fertilized eggs, they can check for problems, and only use one that successfully fertilized in vitro). What usually happens to the fertilized eggs that are not used? They are either frozen or ‘thrown away’! So, to a large extent, these “lives” are going to be frozen or destroyed anyways, so it is definitely the superior value of pikuakh nefesh that should trump the sanctity of embryonic tissue.

  • Just one more note about the research and the federal government. They still fund some research but restrict it to stem cell lines that existed when the ban came into effect. So this does have a chilling effect on research but the government was able to claim that they sought and found a compromise.

    As noted by others, this will probably be detrimental to the US in the future as other nations leap forward with medical advances in this area.

  • I think it’s too early to say what the federal policy will lead to… right now the research focus is on embryonic stem cells, but it seems that adult stem cells are the fast track for actual therapies. IIRC it’s because stem cells drawn from adult patients don’t trigger immune system rejection problems.

    There is still plenty of money being tossed at this, and there will still be plenty of stem-cell research going on in the US.

    I recently read an article in the Israeli edition of National Geographic that showcased Israel’s prominence in this field. They had a very cogent explanation of how the halacha allows embryonic research.

  • God is not made of anything. Everything is made from God. It seems obvious to me that all things are extensions from a single, primordial source of being.

    Anything you can name “atom”, “ball”, “star”, “galaxy”, “God” must be an object of thought which corresponds to some restricted portion of the overall space-time of the World.

    And the more you know about one aspect of something, the less you know about its other aspects: is light a particle or a wave? Both. Neither. Yes and no. It is not controversial from a hard science perspective to say that all objects are “made of” matter and energy that exist not as absolute reality, but as a field of probability that responds to the consciousness of the observer.

    Ideas inherent in thermodynamics, quantum theory, and cosmology really force you to see God as a more Eastern than Western being: integrated in all things as opposed to above and apart from the universe. Atoms are merely one face (phase?) of God.

  • semantics argument, not pro-anti argument follows:

    I don’t understand how not initiating funding has a chilling effect on research. The research had never had federal funding, so it’s not like it was a red hot pulsating thing that got it’s funding frozen.
    Not initiating funding would be stifiling the expansion of research rather than chilling current research.
    Of course it all comes down to the same thing, researchers who want the money to do embryonic stem cell research move to Israel, or California, and I bet my home state of MA is not far behind since we likes our bio-med firms or wait a few years until Congress and the White House turn over.

  • Lynn, a great deal of our technological advances in the US, not to mention companies in the high tech sector, are created directly and indirectly thanks to federal funding.

  • right, I’m not saying anything against it. But it’s not possible for the current research to feel any chilling effect, any repression, from not having access to federal money they never had access to before. One could argue that people are now less willing to give money on their own, thus creating a chilling effect, but I don’t think that’s the case, holding up CA as an example.

    Bush didn’t take away any federal money. There was none in the first place. He has refused to light the fire on moral grounds. I personally don’t think that’s a sound reason for rejecting federal funding almost wholesale. It’s the country’s money, let the country decide (arguments can be that the country did decide during the election, but elections are about more than single issues, usually)

    If we steer clear of the fact that no money existed before, than the argument that this is an unproven science of possibly minimal benefit has a lot more power, because people don’t know that a reason it’s an unproven science of possibly minimal benefit is because there hasn’t been the funding available to do the research.

    There’s a lot of spin, or semantics, everywhere (when isn’t there) and I don’t think that the people who want funding have been able to cut through it yet.

  • lynn:

    It sounds like from your comments that you have never worked in an academic research environment. Would that assessment be correct?

    I worked for 4 years at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. While I’m no expert in grant writing, I have a good sense of how the system works. Of course there never was a “Stem cell research fund” that researchers were drawing from. They applied for general research grants from the NIH and the NSF, without having to wave a flag that they’re using this technique or that technique to qualify. Now, when they apply to the very same government programs, they have to answer a question to the effect of, “Does your research involve embryonic stem cells? If so, please specify which stem cell lines you are using, and how you obtained them.” And if they don’t answer correctly, they cannot do their research. And researchers will always go after the “low-hanging fruit”, or easier grants. Why bother researching stem cells when it will be hard to scrape together enough funding?

    Your statement about Bush having not removed money is a bit of a straw-man argument. He’s just added additional restrictions on the existing funds.

    Click on this Link

  • Hey, you were in my old stomping grounds! I am a former Hadassah group co-pres, foruth generation member and all this sans blue hair, though I am thinking of going blonde. (Long story). Okay, now, please provide dirt/details on single Israeli doctors so I can hit up my Hadassah lady contacts here for intros. 🙂