Report from the frontiers of cancer research
The Israel Cancer Research Fund (with a branch in Connecticut) harnesses the Jewish state’s scientific resources to fight cancer…and keep its best and brightest at home.
By Cindy Mindell
STAMFORD — The Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) just entered its fifth decade and in its short life, has earned bragging rights to some of the most cutting-edge medical inquiry in the world.
ICRF was established in 1975 by a group of North American medical researchers, oncologists, and lay people with a two-pronged mission: Facilitate the growth and development of Israel and combat the worldwide scourge of cancer. Seeking a way to harness Israel’s educational and scientific resources in the fight against cancer while stemming the “brain drain” of Israel’s best and brightest scientists, the founders came up with a solution: providing postdoctoral-fellowship grants for young Israeli MDs and PhDs.
Based in New York City, ICRF has eight additional chapters in the U.S., Canada and Israel — including one in Connecticut. Launched in Stamford in 2013, the statewide group is headed by area director David Kweskin, who came to the organization through his involvement in the local Jewish community. Prior to joining ICRF, Kweskin, who lives in Stamford, was also active in United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien, where he served in several lay capacities, including president.
“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 told the Ledger in a 2013 interview. “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.”
ICRF is guided by an International Board of Trustees, International Scientific Council, Scientific Review Panel, and Scientific Advisory Board. Each chapter is also steered by its own board of directors.
The only U.S.-based charity solely devoted to supporting cancer research in Israel, ICRF receives its total income from private donations and, to date, has provided more than $56 million to support innovative studies by Israeli scientists. Through these grants, researchers have been able to develop improved chemotherapies, advanced techniques in bone-marrow transplantation, and an enhanced understanding of tumor suppressor genes. In 2004, two ICRF-supported scientists, Professors Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, received the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Recent ICRF grants have yielded two breakthroughs by Israeli scientists: A team of researchers at Tel Aviv University led by Noam Shomron, PhD discovered tiny alterations in genes that potentially could be controlled to lower an individual’s risk for developing cancer. At the same time, they found a mechanism that may be capable of stopping cancer from spreading in the body. While the research is relevant to other forms of cancer, the researchers currently are focusing on breast cancer.
In a lab at the Weizmann Institute of Science Department of Molecular Genetics, researchers found a way to reprogram human skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, considered the “blank slate” that can be reprogrammed again into medically useful cells. Lead researcher Dr. Jacob Hanna presented his findings at the March launch in Manhattan of the ICRF Financial Services Sector, a joint initiative of the Connecticut and New York chapters.
The past year has been a particularly fruitful one for ICRF. A new Collaborative Funding Award was created for the most promising cancer research projects being conducted on a collaborative basis between a North American researcher and scientists in Israel. The first award was granted for a study of inherited breast and ovarian cancer among Israeli women, conducted by Ephrat Levy-Lahad, MD of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and Mary-Claire King, PhD of the University of Washington and discoverer of the BRCA gene.
In March, a $5 million gift from the Harvey L. Miller Family Foundation established the Jacki and Bruce Barron Cancer Research Scholars’ Program. The collaborative program of ICRF and the Los Angeles-based City of Hope comprehensive cancer center will promote innovative and cooperative research as the well as the exchange of ideas and information between cancer researchers in the U.S. and Israel.
A rigorous process
ICRF grantees are selected through a rigorous peer-review process conducted by a world-class scientific panel that considers researchers at all major research institutions in Israel. Among the 45 panelists for the 2016-17 funding year is Harriet Kluger, MD, the only current Connecticut-based member.
A native of South Africa, Kluger was a teen when her family immigrated to Israel, where she completed high school and military service before attending medical school at Tel Aviv University. After graduating in 1993, Kluger came with her husband to the U.S. for his post-doctoral training. She did residencies at the University of New Mexico and at Highland General Hospital in Oakland, Calif., then completed a fellowship at Yale University School of Medicine, where she has been ever since. A medical oncologist, Kluger sees patients with melanoma or kidney cancer and runs an active research laboratory that studies tumor and immune cells from patients treated with novel therapies.
Kluger, who is also associate director of the Hematology/Oncology Fellowship Program and Assistant Cancer Center Director for Education and Training at Yale, was first invited to join the ICRF Scientific Review Panel five years ago, and has returned after a two-year hiatus.
“Even though it’s cumbersome and takes a lot of time, the review process is really important for maintaining good standards,” Kluger says. “If we force applicants to write a good grant, it also forces them to think out all the experiments very carefully. Then the applicants have to submit reports, which reassures us and ICRF donors that the funds are being well-used. The review process also provides publicity for the Israeli scientists.
The level of science being conducted at some of the institutions in Israel is really impressive and so it’s a privilege to be a part of the process.”
Last month, the Connecticut chapter hosted an event of Rachel’s Society, an arm of ICRF that focuses on women’s cancers. According to chapter director David Kweskin, the Connecticut Chapter Rachel’s Society has raised more than $25,000 over the past two years, earning its members the privilege to select an approved 2016-17 grant in its honor.
For more information about the ICRF visit icrfonline.org.
A calendar of ICRF events
The Connecticut chapter of the Israel Cancer Research Fund will offer an insider’s view of cutting-edge cancer research in Israel at two June events, hosted in private homes. For information on ICRF Connecticut Chapter events: icrfonline.org/chapter/connecticut / (203) 981-1134
On Tuesday, June 7 in West Hartford, Dr. Yehudit Bergman will discuss her research in epigenetics – changes in gene activity affected by influences outside the genes. A professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Medical School Department of Developmental Biology and Cancer Research, Bergman earned a PhD in immunology from Weizmann Institute, completing post-doctoral studies in immunology and molecular biology at Stanford University and MIT. Bergman is an elected member of the prestigious European Molecular Biology Organization and holds ICRF’s highest level-award, a seven-year Professorship Grant.
On Sunday, June 26 in Danbury, Dr. Shay Covo will discuss his quest to understand how fungal plant pathogens protect their genomes from DNA damage and how they mutate and become resistant to drugs. Covo, an assistant professor in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology, holds a PhD. in Biochemistry of DNA Repair from Weizmann Institute. He completed post-doctoral studies at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Triangle Park, N.C. Covo’s investigation is supported by a three-year ICRF Research Career Development Award.