Talking stem cells with visiting Hadassah official

Shlomo Mor-Yosef


Shlomo Mor-Yosef, director general of Hadassah Medical Organization, recently came to town for a preview event of a Sept. 26th “Framing the Future” program that will honor Dr. William Danforth for his role in keeping stem cell research legal in Missouri. The preview event took place at the home of Sam and Marilyn Fox, honorary chairs of “Framing the Future.” Diane and Paul Gallant are event chairs. 

During his visit, Mor-Yosef sat down with the Jewish Light and discussed some of the ethics, politics and medicine surrounding stem cell research as well as progress being made in Hadassah hospital’s new biotech park in Jerusalem.

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What types of stem cell research are there?

To look at the big picture, you have embryonic stem cell research, adult stem cell research and umbilical cord stem cell research. About umbilical cord and adult there is no controversy but there are big issues about embryonic stem cells. All of them can contribute in different ways.

How does stem cell research work and what kinds of diseases might it alleviate?

The challenge first of all is to grow embryonic stem cells. Hadassah was one of the first to show that it was possible. Then groups all over the world started to direct the cells to be the brain, the heart or the pancreas for diabetics. We have many organs in which the body can’t replace cells. If the heart doesn’t work, we transplant a new heart. Same with the liver. We can’t do that for the brain. Every disease in which you must replace cells is a candidate to be cured by embryonic stem cells. In our group, we started with the brain because with diseases of the brain from Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, MS, and ALS there are no good treatments. For a few of them, there is no treatment at all. This is the hope with embryonic stem cell research, that you can take a cell, direct it to be a part of the brain, inject it into the right place and we have new cells that function.

There are many objections to the use of embryonic stem cells by some. Do you see any of them as legitimate moral concerns?

It has nothing to do with science. There is a big debate in the scientific arena about how important it is and will it bring healing. This is a legitimate debate about scientific approach. When you look at the ethical problem, the religious problem, it depends on your culture. We Jews don’t have any problem with this because the definition of the beginning of life, according to Judaism is only 42 days after conception. According to Christianity, it’s conception. You must also remember it is not an abortion. You don’t do something active in order to do it. Usually, it’s an in vitro fertilization that you do and there are some left over embryos that nobody is going to use so either you throw them into the bin or you use them for research. According to Judaism, if it comes down to throwing it away or using it, of course you’d use it.

What is innovative about the biopark concept?

It is the entire concept of the physician researcher, physicians taking the lead in research in biomedical issues because they see the patients. They come from the bed of the patient and then they go to the lab, going from the bed to the bench. We bring the problem directly to the bench and we start to find the solution. The minute we think that we’ve found some sort of solution, we have to go back to the bed with the solution. But it’s not so easy. In order to bring the solution to the level at which you can treat the patients there are many stages and in order to go through them you need money, lab space, and you have to bring the business arena into it. In many other hospitals the next stage is to send you to some other people who will continue to develop it. We said we would like to be a part of that so that’s why we’ve established a biotech park and an incubator on campus bringing the startup company in. This is interaction between our scientists and the business world.

What is the latest news on Hadassah hospital?

In every community I have been giving a report about building the new hospital tower. The present hospital was built in 1960. It’s about time to build the campus for the next 50 years. It’s a small city. We have on campus every day 25,000 people, students, employees, patients, visitors and so forth.

What treatments are coming closest to fruition?

We are really very close to the point of using stem cells to cure macular degeneration. We feel we are not more than two years from beginning clinical trials on patients.

What can Jews in the United States and in St. Louis do to raise awareness?

I think awareness is very high among American Jews and Hadassah. Of course, I’m very sorry that money should be spent on awareness and convincing legislators instead of putting this money into research. The main point is really to invest in stem cell research. Investing in such research in Israel and specifically in Hadassah will give some benefit at the end of the day to everybody because the products of research are global. If we discover something, everybody will be able to use it.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

There is only one thing and that is the importance of Hadassah Hospital to Jerusalem and its future. Jerusalem is of course the capital of the Jewish people with lots of history but we don’t want Jerusalem to just be a tourist attraction. It’s a vibrant city and one of the ways to really build a future and attract young people to Jerusalem to live there is to build cutting-edge institutions which can create new, quality jobs. This is what we are doing by investing in our campus and building the new hospital tower which will add about 500 beds and create 4,000 jobs.