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National group funding cancer research in Israel expands into CT

By Cindy Mindell

ICRF group shot

At the kickoff event in Stamford for the Connecticut affiliate of The Israel Cancer Research Fund: (l to r) ICRF Connecticut Area Director David Kweskin, ICRF National Executive Director Eric Heffler, event host Len Mark, guest speaker Dr. Yossi Shiloh and his wife, Dr. Shoshi Shiloh

STAMFORD – It’s easy to get inspired by Israel, the young and little country that could, when the media focuses on its “start-up nation” status. But what gets lost among the heartening statistics is the fact that Israel has always been a victim of brain drain.

A 2009 survey by Israel’s Council for Higher Education revealed that 25 percent of the country’s academics were living abroad. Late last year, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics revealed that 14 percent of Israelis with PhDs in science and engineering have been living overseas for more than three years. In response, the Israeli government launched a program to bring the brains back to the Jewish state. The $5.5 million plan would not only help academics find jobs in Israel, but would also assist them and their families in (re)acclimating to Israeli society. Some 2,500 academics registered, most in the U.S., and the rest in Canada, Australia, Japan, and several European countries.

Nearly 40 years before the Israeli government initiative, a group of North Americans decided to launch their own effort. The Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) was founded in 1975 by American and Canadian physicians, scientists, and lay leaders to help curb brain drain and by raising funds for cancer research in Israel. With chapters in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, and Jerusalem, the charitable organization has just grown by one affiliate, a statewide group started in Stamford.

At a kickoff event last month, Len and Susan Mark hosted a parlor meeting at their Stamford home with speaker Dr. Yosef Shiloh, an Israeli cancer researcher whose work is funded by the organization.

The local group is headed by Connecticut area director and Stamford resident David Kweskin, who came to the organization through his involvement in the local Jewish community. During a decades-long career in marketing research, Kweskin was also active in United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien, where he served in several lay capacities, including president.

“I enjoyed the experience of helping Jews around the world so much that I decided to change direction and turn my avocation into a vocation,” he says. After a year spent exploring fundraising opportunities in the Jewish world, Kweskin learned of ICRF. Along the way, he became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Connecticut chapter, where he won the local 2013 Man of the Year title in a fundraising competition for blood-cancer research.

“What I love about ICRF is the fact that the organization is exclusively focused on cancer research and that that is the reason behind the organization, to fund brilliant Israeli scientists,” Kweskin says. “Like many people, cancer has been an unfortunate part of my life: I lost a grandmother to lymphoma, my mother is a survivor of lymphoma, and my wife lost an uncle to cancer.”

Supported solely by private donations, ICRF sponsors an annual grant-review process conducted by a panel of U.S. and Canadian scientists and oncologists and based on the National Institute of Health grant-making procedure. Grants are awarded to the most promising and capable Israeli cancer researchers at the leading academic and research centers in Israel, and are made solely on the basis of scientific merit and the ability of the individual scientist to make a significant impact in his or her field. Since 1977, ICRF has awarded 1,939 grants totaling more than $46 million via fellowships, project grants, career-development awards, and professorships. For the 2012-13 funding year, ICRF is supporting 76 grants for a total of $2.730 million, the highest amount awarded thus far.

Many of the ICRF-funded scientists have made medical breakthroughs — many of which have made a direct, life-saving difference for people living with cancer.

So far, ICRF-funded scientists have produced three FDA-approved drugs and two Nobel Prize-winning chemists. ICRF is also interested in nurturing up-and-coming researchers as well, Kweskin says.

With several Connecticut donors, Kweskin is seeking greater involvement from the community and is organizing an informal committee of advisors and supporters to help spread the word. The parlor meeting served as a kickoff event and drew some 35 Connecticut ICRF donors, including philanthropists Dr. Raymond and Beverly Sackler, who funded the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University, together with Drs. Arthur and Mortimer Sackler. The facility is home to the David and Inez Myers Laboratory for Cancer Genetics, overseen by Dr. Shiloh.

Shiloh described his lab’s investigation of ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T), also known as the Louis-Bar syndrome, a human genetic disorder in which a central axis of the DNA damage response is missing, compromising the stability and integrity of the cellular genome. As a PhD student of human genetics in the late ‘70s, Shiloh was considering a move away from the study of rare genetic diseases when his advisor asked him to visit a Moroccan-Israeli family where three of five children shared a severe neurological disability. After one meeting with the family, Shiloh decided to dedicate his life’s work to understanding and treating the disease. In 1995, he revolutionized the research when his lab identified and cloned the A-T gene.

“Dr. Shiloh told us that his colleagues often ask him why he would study this ‘orphan disease,’ this one rare defect, when there are diseases that attack so many more people,” Kweskin says. “He responds that, to the sufferer, it’s not an orphan disease but rather ‘their disease’ that destroys that individual life and affects the life of a family. His belief is that this person has as much right to have their disease studied as do those affected by more common illnesses.”

ICRF Connecticut will host a Bike for the Fight Spin-a-Thon fundraiser for cancer research on Sunday, Sept. 8 at the Stamford JCC. The event will feature a second visit to Stamford by Israeli Tom Peled, as he bicycles from Toronto to Washington, D.C. in memory of his father, who died of stomach cancer.

For more information about ICRF: icrfonline.org

For more information about Bike for the Fight: stamfordjcc.org

Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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