Scanning Israeli news this week has a feel of a sci-fi fantasy. Most eye-catching of all is the assertion by a Tel Aviv University researcher, in a peer-reviewed article, that hyperbaric oxygen therapy can “reverse aging” by lengthening telomeres, the structures found at the ends of chromosomes, by more than 20% on average.
“This means we can start to look at aging as a reversible disease,” Prof. Shai Efrati said, as reported in the Times of Israel. Some gerontologists are skeptical of the claims and some suggest it could open a Pandora’s box of related health issues, but, from ancient times through the 16th-century conquistador Juan Ponce de León to, apparently, contemporary Israel, humankind has dreamed of and sought out a figurative or literal fountain of youth. Whether Efrati’s research will fulfil that dream will be watched closely.
And there are other scientific headlines this week.
Also coming out of Tel Aviv University is news that scientists have destroyed cancerous cells in mice by pinpointing affected cells with “tiny scissors,” while leaving everything around them intact and with no side effects. With trials possibly to begin in humans within two years, they are hopeful that this could be a revolution that could effectively cure cancer.
A third scientific bombshell comes from Israelis in Canada. Eliav Shaked and Roy Kirshon, expatriate biomedical engineers working in Toronto, are developing a speedy, non-invasive diagnostic for patients who are likely decades away from showing symptoms of dementia. While there is no cure yet for dementias like Alzheimer’s disease, the pair believe that an early diagnosis will not only permit individuals to prepare for eventual care but allow doctors to study the progression of the disease and thereby gain valuable insights.
In these pages, we frequently highlight Israeli technological and medical advancements but the news this week really seemed like a dream sequence from a futuristic utopia. Of course, none of these initiatives is a sure bet but they read like a hat trick against some of the most damning health challenges facing our generations.
Is it a coincidence that these are all emerging from Israel? It is no secret that the tiny state is a locus of a massively disproportionate amount of the world’s achievements in a range of fields.
Some books, like Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, and many other observers have posited that Israel’s successes are achieved not in spite of the adversities the country and its people have faced, but as a direct result of them. So many of the scientific, social and economic advances that have come out of Israel in recent decades are civilian benefits redounding from military research and development, though Israel is by no means the only country for which this is case.
No less significant are the social impacts of compulsory service in a national defence force that some have called the least hierarchical in the world. Individuals who made life-and-death choices for themselves and their colleagues at age 19 or 20 may be less timid in taking major entrepreneurial or other life risks at 25 or 30 than an average North American or European at that age. Not to discount the value of peace and all the benefits it would bring, the circumstances in which Israel exists have created a thoroughly unique social and economic environment.
Coincidentally or not, also in the news this week was a vote at the United Nations in which 163 countries, including Canada, voted for a condemnatory resolution against Israel; five voted against. It is one of 17 resolutions expected in this General Assembly session targeting Israel, while just seven country-specific resolutions are expected to be aimed at condemning every other injustice on the planet. Canadian Jewish organizations and pro-Israel commentators are furious at Canada’s vote, which directly contradicts pledges made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, including during the last election campaign.
While many are appalled at the hypocritical obsession with Israel, and certainly Israeli diplomats are in the fray denouncing the vote, average Israelis, it is safe to say, remain sanguine. They have seen far worse attacks than that by the world community in the comparatively impotent global parliament that the UN General Assembly has become.
While it would be nice if the world judged Israel with moral measuring sticks commensurate with those we use for every other country, in the end it doesn’t seem to make much difference, thankfully. Even through the pandemic, Israelis have continued to try and turn science fiction into scientific reality. This week’s news alone included the possibility of cures for cancer, dementia and aging itself. And the benefits of such research do not accrue solely to Israelis, but to all of us – whether the nations of the world at the General Assembly recognize and appreciate that fact or not.