Shira Haas is the featured guest at the July 7 event organized by Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. (photo from CABGU)
Israeli actress Shira Haas, star of the popular Netflix series Shtisel and Unorthodox, has been busy in recent months. Not only is she preparing to take on the role of a young Golda Meir in the upcoming series Lioness, executive produced by Barbra Streisand, but she is also the featured guest at the Canadian national virtual gala in support of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) on July 7.
An “Unorthodox” National Virtual Gala for Brain Research, organized by Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University (CABGU), BGU’s Canadian fundraising arm, will raise money for the Canada Fund to Advance Brain Research.
“We are thrilled to share this exciting announcement with our community,” said Mitchell Oelbaum, national president of CABGU.
“According to the World Health Organization, there are approximately 50 million active cases of dementia worldwide, with an estimated 10 million new cases being added each year. Ten million people battle Parkinson’s each year globally. And, according to the World Stroke
Organization, 13 million people suffer from stroke annually. We wanted to do our part to help improve the chances of finding a cure for these debilitating diseases.”
The numbers are large, and there are no signs of a slowdown. That is why the fund was established by CABGU, with the goal of supporting groundbreaking and cutting-edge research for neurodegenerative diseases at the university’s Zlotowski Centre for Neuroscience.
“We are getting closer to determining the causes of age-related neurodegenerative diseases,” explained Dr. Debra Toiber of the department of life sciences in the faculty of natural sciences at BGU. “It’s an exciting time to be a scientist and uncovering the mechanisms of aging.”
Toiber is one of 67 researchers at the Zlotowski Centre. Her lab recently discovered that the SIRT6 protein is critical for the prevention of neurodegeneration, which can lead to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Colleague Dr. Shelly Levy-Tzedek’s lab studies the impact of age and disease on the control of body movement and how best to employ robotics to facilitate a fast and efficient rehabilitation process. Meanwhile, Dr. Claude Brodski, also with the Zlotowski Centre for Neuroscience, is currently conducting a study, albeit in its early stages, that may offer a disease-modified drug target to address the impact of Parkinson’s. While these findings are encouraging, more research needs to be conducted.
“CABGU launched the Canada Fund to Advance Brain Research at BGU in April,” said CABGU chief executive officer Mark Mendelson. “Our team has been hard at work ever since, and there is a strong appetite for this subject matter here in Canada. The sad reality is that we all know someone, whether it is a relative, a friend or a neighbour, who is struggling with one of these devastating brain diseases.”
The national virtual gala is already more than 50% sold out. To learn how to become a sponsor or to purchase tickets, head to bengurion.ca.
Ben-Gurion University’s Prof. Amir Sagi, left, and Dr. Amit Savaia have found a way to use shrimp to fight a deadly parasitic disease in Nigeria. (photo from BGU)
This year, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev plans to launch a new school that will specialize in climate change research, mitigation and environmental sustainability. It will also offer a graduate program with a cross-section of specialties.
BGU’s three campuses house an enrolment of 20,000 students and a faculty of 4,000. Its areas of expertise range far and wide, and, among other things, the university has become known as a go-to place for figuring out how to address one of the 21st century’s biggest threats: climate change.
For BGU president Daniel Chamovitz, the university’s growing reputation isn’t that much of a surprise. “Because what have we been doing in the last 60 years?” he asked rhetorically. “We have been learning how to survive – not to survive, how to thrive in the desert.”
Chamovitz’s own expertise is in genetics and plant biology. Originally from Aliquippa, Pa., he is most recently known for his studies in plant development and for his book What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses, which has been published in 18 languages.
The realization that the university already has a strong foothold in environmental and sustainability research, Chamovitz said, is what led to its new mandate to become the world’s authority on climate change and sustainability.
A long history
For Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, the Negev was always Israel’s greatest untapped resource. It was the place, he predicted, that the Jewish homeland would sow their greatest accomplishments. A desert that spans more than 60% of the country’s land mass, the Negev would hold the answers to Israel’s most pressing problems of the day: how to grow enough food to feed a nation, generate sufficient energy to power cities and harness enough water to turn brown deserts green.
But building a sustainable nation, he warned, one that could benefit from a desert that receives less than 200 millimetres of rainfall per year wouldn’t be simple. “It is incumbent upon Israel’s scientists to reveal the secrets of nature that are unique to our land,” he said. The Negev, he insisted, was the perfect environment for an institute of study that could solve the world’s most basic – and challenging – problems of existence.
Ben-Gurion’s visionary thinking was the catalyst for many of Israel’s earliest environmental accomplishments, including desalination and energy generation using seawater, steps that would be critical to Israel’s much-needed water technology. Both projects were developed in the 1960s, at a research facility in the town of Be’er Sheva, a Bedouin settlement at the northern tip of the Negev. The institute that gave rise to these early innovations would eventually become BGU.
BGU’s new school
Two years ago, when he was hired as president of BGU, Chamovitz told the Jewish Independent he had conducted a “bottom-up” assessment of all of the departments and their areas of specialization. He wanted to know what their strengths and weaknesses were.
“[We] identified over 150 researchers dealing with various issues of sustainability and climate change,” Chamovitz said. “And, in every discipline. Not only in our institutes of water, energy and desert agriculture – that’s the low-lying fruit – but also in engineering and in civil engineering, where we develop energy-efficient building material and methods.
“It was clear to everyone that the field of sustainability and climate change was what sets Ben-Gurion University apart from every other university in Israel.”
That brand-name recognition helped secure a new partnership with Royal Bank of Canada, which is sponsoring the new school’s first graduate fellowship program. The investment by RBC will fund two fellowship positions for students specializing in climate change or sustainability-related research and, in doing so, help launch the program.
This isn’t the first time that RBC has partnered with the university. In 2018, RBC and BGU entered into a cybersecurity partnership, in which the bank invested $2 million toward research programs in BGU’s department of software and information systems engineering.
In this case, the partnership aligns with RBC’s own long-term sustainability goals and its Tech for Nature program, which it launched in 2019.
“The research being conducted also aligns with RBC’s interests as we recognize that innovative technologies offer immense potential to help solve environmental challenges,” Martin Thibodeau, B.C. regional president, RBC Royal Bank, told the Independent. “The most pressing environmental concerns of our time are negatively impacting the planet at a rate that often outpaces the solutions designed to address them. RBC is leveraging its capabilities in technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain, as well as its convening power, to build solutions and the type of multi-partner coalitions needed to address and solve our shared environmental challenges.
“Our commitments align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and, through our partnerships, we aim to develop multi-sector, multi-partner solutions to achieve progress on these challenging issues. We’re both proud and excited to partner with BGU through CABGU to address these important issues,” Thibodeau said.
“We are in awe of the grassroots contributions that RBC makes to our Jewish community and the positive role that RBC plays and has played in strengthening so many local community organizations in British Columbia and across Canada,” said David Berson, executive director of the B.C. & Alberta chapter of the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University, which worked as a liaison with RBC and BGU to secure the partnership.
“[We] are incredibly excited that corporations such as RBC see the importance of partnering with Ben-Gurion University, [and] that their investment [will] pay back to society tenfold,” Chamovitz said. He likened RBC’s partnership to an educator who invests in students’ goals, which, in time, benefit generations to come.
A new learning model
Climate change is a multidisciplinary problem, said Chamovitz, one that takes the expertise of not only hydrologists, biologists and engineers, but geneticists, geologists, legal experts and others. Education, therefore, must be tailored to meet the broad range of knowledge required to understand climate change. That doesn’t mean graduate students won’t specialize in their research and their studies, Chamovitz said, but they will be expected to have a multidisciplinary background that connects with the challenges of creating a sustainable world and addressing climate change.
“The one requirement would be their willingness to work interdisciplinarily and to take courses in other fields. Otherwise, they don’t need the school,” said Chamovitz. “They could just go into the school of engineering [for example] or school of ecology. And, you know, for some people, that’s the better track.”
Chamovitz said it’s companies like RBC that are making this new branch of education possible, adding that the university has seen an increase in inquiries from companies and communities across the world that are attempting to address climate change challenges. Last year, for example, a company located in Chennai, India, reached out to see if BGU could assist in building a local agricultural research institute. Chamovitz said the institute’s future researchers will be trained first at BGU before returning home to Chennai to begin their new jobs. The university has also struck up a three-way partnership with the city of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and Arizona State University, in Tempe, Ariz., to address issues relating to global warming in Dubai.
“We have similar collaborations in western China, which are also in arid places. And we are really excited about developing relationships in Canada,” said Chamovitz, who recently visited Vancouver to meet the presidents of Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia, which both offer studies in climate change and sustainability.
The two Israeli RBC fellowship students have already been selected. Shir Eisenstein will be doing a master’s in material engineering, looking for new materials that help harness sustainable, renewable energy. Nadina Levitt, who is also pursuing a master’s, will be enrolled in the department of geography and environmental studies and studying sustainability models for smart cities. Both students demonstrated a key requirement for upper-level studies when it comes to BGU’s approach to this new specialization: innovation.
“One of the problems in higher education is this need for prerequisites,” Chamovitz noted. “What we are looking for is not prerequisites, but ingenuity.”
The university is expected to complete the formalization process and approval for the new school of sustainability and climate change in February and be open for enrolment this October.
Jan Lee’s articles, op-eds and blog posts have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism, Times of Israel and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
Left to right, Senator Linda Frum, actor Mayim Bialik and BGU president Danny Chamovitz participated in the virtual Big Bang event, hosted by Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev on Sept. 9. (photo by David Berson)
On Sept. 9, the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev hosted its first national virtual gathering. The Big Bang Event to “save the class of COVID-19” was an urgent move to support the university’s 20,000 students.
With many students having lost their jobs in the sudden economic slowdown, they are unable to fund their tuition or even their basic needs. Rather than forfeiting a generation of leaders to financial hardship, BGU launched a student assistance program in July, with the goal of raising $6 million for 6,000 individuals.
While it is Israel’s newest university, BGU is a leader in academic research and technological development. With three campuses, it is credited as a trailblazer in both the humanities and the sciences – nanotechnology, robotics, cybersecurity, Israel studies, Jewish thought, neuroscience, medicine, business and management – addressing some of the world’s biggest problems, such as drought and hunger. The university’s reach is local as well as international, serving the immediate community in the Negev, including both the immigrant and indigenous Bedouin populations.
BGU was founded in 1969, following the vision of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. Ben-Gurion sought to establish a university which would act as a “source of moral inspiration and courage, rousing people to a sense of mission: noble, creative and fruitful.” He believed that the Negev Desert would be critical to the future of the new country – the desert covers 60% of the country, and Ben-Gurion saw it becoming an economic, academic, scientific and cultural hub.
The Big Bang Event featured guest speaker Mayim Bialik, well-known for her roles in the 1990s show Blossom and, more recently, in her award-winning role as Amy Farrah Fowler in Big Bang Theory. In addition to acting, Bialik earned a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2007; her dissertation examined the role of oxytocin and vasopressin in obsessive-compulsive disorder in adolescents with Prader-Willi syndrome. A mother of two, Bialik is also an accomplished writer and musician.
Quirky, vivacious and searingly intelligent in her remarks, watching her speak at the Big Bang Event brought to mind the Yiddish proverb, “The heart is small and it embraces the whole wide world.” Bialik spoke from the heart, telling the audience about her own family story and the genesis of her Jewish identity. She spoke about her heritage, how she raised her children and how she carries her Jewish identity into her professional life in a fireside chat-style with Canadian Senator Linda Frum.
Also speaking at the event was BGU president Danny Chamovitz, who addressed the audience from his home in Israel at what would have been 2:30 a.m. his time. Chamovitz was in isolation, having recently returned from Europe, and, following the event, he did indeed test positive for coronavirus, but has since made a full recovery.
Chamovitz described his office’s emergency response to the pandemic. Members of the university community were invited to submit proposals and, as a result, more than 70 initiatives are in progress, including the development of tests for COVID-19 that drastically reduce turnaround times.
“Across the country, more than 380 households purchased tickets and more than 800 people watched the program,” said David Berson, CABGU regional executive director, in a recent email interview. “We have raised over $1.3 million with 50% of that being raised locally. In our region, 83 households purchased tickets and more than 200 people watched the program.”
In addition to raising money, he said, “The event was a great success motivating many new people to support CABGU. It has set the bar, the gold standard, for how to properly execute a national virtual event. Regarding the campaign itself, the rate of unemployment in Israel is 50% for the under-34 age bracket. By the opening of the academic year on Oct. 18, more than 5,000 students had applied for support from this student assistance fund. Where we had been fearful that enrolment would drop because of the financial impact of the pandemic, it turns out that enrolment for undergrad studies increased by 32%. The funds raised have been vital in creating accessibility for so many students hit hard by this unprecedented situation.”
While the Big Bang audience was scattered from coast to coast, a warm ambience was created locally, with hand-delivered baskets of sweet and savoury delicacies: quiches and bourekas, as well as exquisitely decorated handmade chocolates, from Café FortyOne; and BGU wine tumblers and a bottle of red wine.
The local business sponsor was Instafund and Instafund’s Adam Korbin, who was the Metro Vancouver chair of the event, thanked Bialik at the end of the program.
“We were very fortunate to have dozens of local sponsors for the event,” said Berson. “Details of the sponsors can be found on our website, bengurion.ca.”
Regional board chair Si Brown “was thrilled with the generous response from and participation of our local community,” Berson added. “Since reestablishing CABGU in Metro Vancouver seven years ago, it has been gratifying for me to watch how our community has slowly and surely begun to embrace this young and dynamic Israeli university in the Negev.”
Mayim Bialik headlines a Sept. 9 event to raise funds for the SOS: Support Our Students Assistance Fund at Ben-Gurion University. (photo from CABGU)
Across five time zones, two scientists and a Canadian senator will virtually get together to talk science, Judaism, veganism, Israel and the empowerment of young women. Join the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev on Wednesday, Sept. 9, at 4:30 p.m. (Pacific) for their first national virtual event, inspired by the appeal to address the dire needs of BGU’s students as a result of the coronavirus. The event will feature actress, neuroscientist and author Mayim Bialik, PhD, star of the TV series The Big Bang Theory and the sitcom Blossom; BGU president Prof. Danny Chamovitz; and special guest moderator, Senator Linda Frum. They will offer three perspectives on some of the most pressing issues facing the Jewish community, Israel and the world.
The economic crisis caused by the pandemic has forced thousands of BGU students to question their ability to continue their studies this fall. The event will benefit the recently launched SOS: Support Our Students Assistance Fund at Ben-Gurion University – a fund designed to save the class of COVID -19.
“Our event brings together three highly intelligent and socially engaged speakers that will captivate the 500 people we expect from across Canada,” said Mark Mendelson, chief executive officer of CABGU, speaking from Montreal.
“Mayim’s story has relevance and appeal for the next generation, especially during these turbulent times when many are wrestling with how to realize their social responsibility,” said David Berson, CABGU’s executive director for Western Canada. Regional chairperson for the event, Adam Korbin, added: “Equally important is the fact that she knows how to make people laugh, something we all could use right now.”
In addition to the discussion, guests will be treated to a bottle of award-winning red wine from the Yatir Winery in Israel’s Negev region and sweet and savoury kosher treats prepared by Café 41. Tickets are $180 per household, which includes a partial tax receipt; sponsorships are also available.
To purchase tickets or for further information, go to bengurion.ca or contact Berson at [email protected] or 604-266-2680. Tickets are limited and this event will likely sell out.
Israeli neuroscientist Dr. Ilan Dinstein was in Vancouver last month to talk about autism research. (photo by Adele Lewin)
Neuroscientist Dr. Ilan Dinstein was in Vancouver last month to share research and expand knowledge on best practices internationally. An associate professor of psychology and cognitive and brain sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), Dinstein is the director of the new National Autism Research Centre (NAC) in Israel.
David Berson, executive director of the Canadian Associates of BGU for British Columbia and Alberta, told the Independent: “CABGU was delighted to be a part of hosting Dr Ilan Dinstein in Metro Vancouver. This visit was spearheaded by Dr. Grace Iarocci, Dr. Elina Birmingham and Dr. Sam Doesburg from SFU [Simon Fraser University] and Dr. Tim Oberlander from B.C. Children’s Hospital.
“Ilan Dinstein is a true reflection of the pioneering spirit that is unique to the Negev region of Israel, where, over the past five years, clinicians from Soroka University Medical Centre and researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have organically come together to collaborate for the betterment of all of the residents with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] in the region.”
Dinstein spoke with the Independent about the new centre and the purpose of his visit to Canada.
“We started the centre five years ago, to try to understand different causes of autism,” he said. “Autism is not one disorder. There are different sub-types of autism, with different possible roots and risk factors. Some of those factors are biological or genetic; others might be environmental. For example, a premature birth might be a risk factor in the child developing autism. Or the age of the parents – a child of older parents might have a higher risk of autism diagnosis than if the same parents were younger. We at the centre are trying to discover how the combination of genetic and environmental issues affects autism development.”
According to Dinstein, one of the reasons for the creation of the centre was the way science is funded in Israel. “The funding usually comes for one specific question,” he explained, “but autism is a complex, systematic disorder and it needs many facets of study, measurement and research; it needs collaboration and sharing of information. At the centre, we are able to combine different fields of study with the clinical applications, as we work together with the Soroka medical centre.”
The scientists of the NAC study autistic patients from different multidisciplinary angles: neuroscience and cellular biology, language pathology and motor tracking, even facial features.
“The truly unique thing is that we do all our studies inside the hospital,” Dinstein said. “Parents come in with their children, usually when the children are about 3 years old and the parents and the children’s teachers notice the kids’ uncommon behavioural patterns. The diagnosis of autism usually takes four visits. During those visits, we work in collaboration with the doctors, measuring various characteristics of the child’s development to arrive at the right diagnosis.
“We also started a database of all our patients, so we have a centralized well of knowledge about how various biological, cultural and social factors might contribute to autism development.”
Of course, not all of the parents agree to have their child added to the database, but Dinstein said that their recruitment rate is about 80%.
After the diagnosis, the scientists participate in determining a personalized treatment program, based on their research. “Such a program might include teaching the children useful behavioural habits, helping them with language acquisition or providing occupational therapy,” explained Dinstein. “Some autistic kids are very agitated and certain motions, like spinning, might calm them down. Sometimes, autistic children need to learn basic skills: how to dress themselves or brush their teeth.”
Pharmaceuticals can also help children cope with autism, but Dinstein said that only about 10% of patients use medications.
At the NAC, the scientists don’t treat patients, but rather study and make recommendations, develop new technologies and new methods of dealing with the disorder. Working together with clinical professionals, they hope to contribute to a higher rate of success in treatment.
One of the most important aspects of Dinstein’s and his colleagues’ work is an annual follow-up on the patients in the database. Families are required to come back once a year after the initial diagnosis, so the service providers can see their progress, determine what worked and what didn’t, and adjust their recommendations accordingly.
“We are still in the process of enlarging this project,” said Dinstein. “We want to open other locations in Israel, make our database to cover the entire state of Israel.”
The centre’s autism research, in particular its database of patients with autism, inspired interest locally, from scientists and clinicians to families and service providers. The invitation for Dinstein to visit Vancouver came from a range of people.
“Your researchers want to create a similar database to ours, Canada-wide,” said Dinstein about his presentation at the Children’s Hospital. “I met with scientists from UBC [University of British Columbia] and SFU, even some from Victoria. I also met medical professionals, parents, some service providers and stakeholders. I see these meetings as the beginning of a close relationship between autism research in Israel and in Canada. There are similarities there, but there are differences, too. Both countries have different ethnic maps, cultural traditions and genetic variations. We all want to know how such diversity affects autism.”
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Prof. Yuval Shahar, left, and David Berson with Dr. Rachael Ritchie of Vancouver Coastal Health. (photo by Shula Klinger)
The use of artificial intelligence is intended “to harness the power of computers with math and statistics theory to improve the diagnosis and care of patients,” according to Dr. Yuval Shahar, professor of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s software and information systems engineering department.
Between May 23 and 30, Canadian Associates of BGU, B.C. and Alberta Region, hosted a visit from Shahar, whose research explores how information technologies can be used to improve numerous aspects of healthcare.
Shahar has spent 30 years working in digital medicine, gained his bachelor and medical degrees from the Hebrew University, and a master’s in computer science from Yale University. He did his doctorate at Stanford University, where he also spent 10 years as a faculty member in the computer science and medicine department. He founded BGU’s Medical Informatics Research Centre in 2000 and, in 2017, was elected as a founding member of the International Academy of Health Sciences Informatics.
During his time in Vancouver, Shahar presented his work to full lecture halls across town, including at Simon Fraser University, University of British Columbia, various government offices, Vancouver General Hospital, Pacific Blue Cross and some start-ups.
The program with which Shahar works requires patients to wear an ECG (echocardiographic) belt around their chest to monitor their heart, as well as a blood pressure cuff. This allows a patient to receive care 24 hours a day. Using Bluetooth, the data collected from these devices are sent to the patient’s cellphone and then to the program’s server in Israel.
MobiGuide was developed with 13 partners in Europe, including Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Austria. Even with 63 other projects competing for funding – including teams at Oxford and Cambridge universities – the MobiGuide team received seven million euros. “Ben-Gurion already had the necessary technology working,” said Shahar.
The program is led by an Israeli team in the main technology centre at BGU, with the partners from across Europe. Shahar explained how the system works, using the analogy of today’s mapping software. “It’s like a medical version of GPS,” he said. Right now, the program’s focus is on diabetes and hypertension.
One advantage of MobiGuide is the way the server handles massive amounts of clinical research, explained Shahar. For instance, when international guidelines for treating hypertension change, you can update that information in one place and it will be reflected throughout the entire system. That information is then immediately available to all patients and their physicians on the MobiGuide system.
“There are millions of patients on the system now,” said Shahar. “Each cellphone has a customized version of the guidelines in the program so the phone alerts the ‘mothership’ and the server examines the data for anomalies. The mothership knows the full patient history and clinical guidelines.”
The server in Israel also reminds patients to make adjustments, such as to their diet. A phone can contact the mothership to ask for advice, and recommendations are customized for each individual. Personal preferences can be adjusted depending on the patient – for example, when they prefer to be alerted to take their medications. If they are on vacation, they can ask the system not to alert them as frequently.
The system can also be notified to anticipate spikes in blood glucose. For instance, if a patient is attending a wedding and expects to eat rich food, she can tell the system first that it need not be concerned about this. Likewise, if a patient lives alone and has nobody to rely on for support with their health, the system can issue different instructions than for someone with a companion.
Humans are, however, still essential to the smooth running of the system. Shahar relies on “medical-knowledge engineers, graduate students,” who digitize clinical knowledge so that it can be applied on the system. But, he said, “It’s a sign of the future. Chronic patients won’t need to be in clinics all of the time. You want to be there only if there’s no other way.” It is cheaper to offer care in the community, especially in remote areas, even while offering round-the-clock observation.
To date, feedback from patients and the professional community has been consistently good. Compliance with clinical guidelines by physicians has improved, preventing a great deal of human error and possibly fatal mistakes, said Shahar. Likewise, he said, “Compliance was very high, we saw real patient empowerment.”
Patients “said that their quality of life had improved, they felt more secure and safe,” said Shahar. This is important, he explained, because AI in healthcare is not just about technology – human psychology has a huge impact on both patient treatment and outcomes.
As an example of the program’s success, Shahar said, in Barcelona, pregnant women with gestational diabetes were studied. The blood pressure of the research patients was significantly lower than in the control group, who attended in-person clinics. Shahar explained that these data were accompanied by a sense that a “benevolent big brother was monitoring them, and someone was sending alerts and recommendations every few days.”
After a four-year evaluation hosted by a veterans hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., there is evidence that the software developed by Shahar’s team has helped physicians manage oncology data better than before. With only seven to 10 minutes to give to each patient, physicians simply do not have the time to review all the material they need to, while considering its application and significance to individual patients.
In his talk at the Eye Care Centre at VGH, Shahar recalled asking a patient if she minded getting numerous texts from MobiGuide every day. “She laughed, I get 50 texts from my friends, what’s another 20?” he said. But, in reality, she clarified, “How could I mind? This is about the health of my baby.” Shahar added, “They feel that someone knows them deeply.”
According to David Berson, regional executive director of CABGU, Shahar’s visit was a success. He said BGU will examine how Shahar’s research in medical informatics can dovetail with local efforts to revolutionize healthcare, exploring the potential for “patient empowerment, remote monitoring, decision-making support and beyond.”
BGU board member and innovation expert Jonathan Miodowski said there was a need to balance between “blue-sky research and practical solutions” to real-world problems. “Multidisciplinary approach is a hot topic for universities these days – it is critical to bring different perspectives to the research,” he said.
Miodowski described Israel as a world leader in innovation. Last year, Canada raised $4.7 billion in start-up capital, he said, noting that Israeli start-ups, by contrast, raised $10 billion. “For a country that is two-thirds the size of Vancouver Island, that’s pretty significant,” he said. “In a sense, the size of the territory is very convenient. Cross-pollination of ideas is inevitable.”
Miodowski also spoke well of the Vancouver visit. “We planted some seeds on both sides,” he said. “It was very positive. There was real interest in Yuval’s research, real appreciation for what Israel has done in terms of its innovation ecosystem.”
Shula Klinger is an author and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at shulaklinger.com.
Left to right: Laura Feldman, Dr. Deborah Toiber, Joanne Haramia, Dr. Janet Kushner Kow and Dr. Gloria Gutman. (photo from CABGU)
Alzheimer’s, Dementia and You, an event presented by Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev on June 5 at the Rothstein Theatre, featured a panel of experts whose presentations and discussion provided insights to both those seeking information and those seeking support.
Keynote speaker Dr. Deborah Toiber of Ben-Gurion University’s department of life sciences, described her approach to neurodegenerative aging as the key factor in understanding diseases like Alzheimer’s. (See jewishindependent.ca/bgu-finds-key-protein.)
Moderated by Simon Fraser University professor emerita Dr. Gloria Gutman, the panel represented a wealth of experience. Dr. Janet Kushner Kow, a geriatrician associated with Providence Health Care and the University of British Columbia, answered questions from the medical perspective. Laura Feldman, with 10 years of grassroots experience at the Alzheimer Society of British Columbia, spoke about the need to seek knowledge and support. Joanne Haramia recounted how families she has cared for through Jewish Family Services have found it easier to cope when they have support from the community. People stayed after the event to mingle and talk to the panelists and ask more questions.
Prior to the event, there was a reception, catered by Nava Creative Kosher Cuisine, for sponsors and partners. Sponsors were InstaFund and Annie Du and Aeron Evans of National Bank Financial, Wealth Management; co-sponsors were the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, Jewish Family Services, Louis Brier Home and Hospital, and Jewish Seniors Alliance, with community partners being the Alzheimer Society of B.C., SFU Gerontology Research Centre and the Jewish Independent as media partner.
– Courtesy of Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Ben-Gurion University’s Dr. Deborah Toiber will be part of a panel in Vancouver called Alzheimer’s, Dementia and You: Research, Risk Reduction and Resources. (photo from CABGU)
Alzheimer’s affects about six percent of people over the age 65 worldwide. For years, scientists have been searching for ways to treat it and to discover its roots, but without much success, until recently.
A group of Ben-Gurion University researchers, under the leadership of Dr. Deborah Toiber, is among those who have made breakthroughs. They have discovered that a certain protein, SIRT6, necessary for DNA repair, is largely missing from the brains of people with Alzheimeir’s. The absence of this protein and the gradual decline in its production by the human body as we age might be what triggers the disease.
On June 5, Toiber will be the keynote speaker at Alzheimer’s, Dementia and You: Research, Risk Reduction and Resources. She will be joined in a panel discussion by Laura Feldman from the Alzheimer Society of British Columbia and Joanne Haramia of Jewish Family Services; Simon Fraser University professor emeritus Dr. Gloria Gutman, one of the founders of SFU’s Gerontology Research Centre, will be the moderator. The event, which will be held at the Rothstein Theatre, is being presented by the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University (CABGU) in partnership with the Jewish Independent, the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Adults 55+ program, the Alzheimer Society of B.C., Louis Brier Home and Hospital, Jewish Family Services, Jewish Seniors Alliance, and L’Chaim Adult Day Care.
According to David Berson, executive director of CABGU, British Columbia and Alberta Region, “the purpose of the panel is to increase the awareness and understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and neurodegenerative diseases.”
“Deborah was coming to Canada to visit the community in Winnipeg for a similar event,” Berson told the Independent. “We had a wonderful opportunity to bring the young and dynamic researcher to Vancouver and we jumped at it…. Toiber’s research, as I understand it, is part of a race to discover, isolate and understand the characteristics, components and mechanisms of DNA that will allow us to identify and treat neurodegenerative diseases prior to onset.”
In her email interview with the Independent, Toiber talked about her work and her group’s discovery. She said that DNA deteriorate with age. “It is not something genetic or environmental,” she said. “We repair our DNA and continue going on, but the repairs are not perfect. Some DNA remain unrepaired. As we get older, unrepaired DNA accumulate, and their ability to produce proteins diminishes.”
She further explained: “If the DNA is damaged, and a cell feels it is too dangerous to continue with this damaged DNA, the cell may activate a self-destruct mechanism. If too many cells do this, the tissue with the dying cells will deteriorate, such as the brain.” Essentially, the deterioration of the DNA and the reduced production of SIRT6 protein mark “the beginning of the chain that ends in neurodegenerative diseases in seniors. In Alzheimer’s patients, SIRT6 is almost completely gone.”
Toiber said scientists should be focusing on how to maintain the production of SIRT6 and how to improve the repair capacity of the damaged DNA, because that is what causes Alzheimer’s and similar diseases. Unfortunately, it is impossible to introduce the needed protein directly into the brain. “There is a blood barrier that prevents things from passing into the brain,” she said. “But we are trying to find a way to increase the expression of the protein into the brain.”
Toiber has always been fascinated by the molecular biology of the human brain. “I chose this field because I wanted to understand in-depth how the brain works, to investigate what happens when things stop working,” she said. “I think that molecular biology is the answer to all those questions. It’s like being a detective on the molecular level.”
She realizes that a detective’s work is never easy or fast. “Results take years to build, as they are based on previous findings, ours and other scientists’. My current group, where I am the principal researcher, is about three years old. It is a new lab.”
The research is multifaceted and multidirectional. “We do basic science,” she said. “We use animal models and cells to understand what is happening as we age, what is the cause of disease and what can we learn from this to develop treatments or preventive actions. We also collaborate with medical professionals and other scientists to get a fuller picture of various aspects of aging and neurodegeneration, particularly Alzheimer’s disease.”
Toiber’s group doesn’t work on the pharmaceutical angle of how to introduce the protein into patients’ bodies. Instead, she explained, “We are interested in the molecular causes of aging, such as DNA damage accumulation, and how this leads to disease. We work in experimental biology. These experiments are expensive and difficult. It can take a long time to see and understand the results, but it is also rewarding. Molecular processes help us understand how our organisms work and what happens when things go wrong. We have to be optimistic and keep trying.”
Many scientists in related fields of study are interested in Toiber’s work. “I have talked about our research at the international neurochemistry meeting in Paris and at conferences in Crete and Israel,” she said.
To hear her speak in Vancouver, register at eventbrite.ca. There is no cost to attend.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].