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Israel Update: Visits to the Western Wall and the Hadassah Medical Center

The Wailing Wall

The Wailing Wall, Israel

So, my prayers were answered. As I mentioned in my last post, my luggage did not arrive with me in Israel, but, as the airlines promised, it did a day later, so I haven’t had to keep wearing the same clothes. Thank goodness.

Before heading off to Jerusalem, on Wednesday, to meet with FFB-funded retinal researchers and clinicians, my first stop with FFB board member and traveling mate David Brint was the Western Wall, located in the Old City in Jerusalem. Sometimes called the Wailing Wall, it is a foundation wall of the Second Temple and the closest point to a location that many Jews believe is the holiest place on earth. Constructed around 19 BCE by Herod the Great, the Temple was an architectural marvel, and the walls that remain after its destruction clearly show the wisdom and craft of those who built it. Being there, an experience I’d looked forward to for years, was very moving.

David and I then met with several researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem of the Hadassah Medical Center, including FFB-supported Drs. Eyal Banin (our host), Benjamin “Benny” Reubinoff, Dror Sharon, as well as Dr. Itay Chowers. We learned about Benny and Eyal’s efforts to make retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells from stem cells under conditions that are as “pure” as possible for eventual use as a transplantation treatment in human clinical trials for age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and Stargardt disease. RPE cells play an essential, supportive role in the retina, but are damaged significantly in people with those diseases.

Researchers from Hadassah: Dr. Eyal Banin, FFB Board Director Mr. David Brint, Dr. Steve Rose, Dr. Dror Sharon, and Dr. Itay Chowers

Dr. Eyal Banin, FFB Board Director Mr. David Brint, Dr. Steve Rose, Dr. Dror Sharon, and Dr. Itay Chowers

In addition, Dror — a geneticist dedicated to finding and understanding the genes that cause inherited retinal degenerations in the diverse populations of the Middle East — has made outstanding progress in locating culprit genes and determining why they cause vision loss. In particular, his laboratory has been responsible for finding a significant number of retinitis pigmentosa and Leber congenital amaurosis genes. Because his lab has an enormous number of DNA samples from affected individuals and their families, he will undoubtedly find more genes and targets for potential treatments.

We also met with Dr. Amir Amedi, who is pioneering research to reprogram the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes signals from the retina, to recognize hearing signals as “vision.” He demonstrated his team’s impressive progress, and I was amazed to learn how the brain can be trained to recognize different tones (their pitch, length, and duration) and interpret them as letters and even faces. What was also amazing was his evidence that the visual cortex can be rehabilitated well after individuals lose their sight. This is critical as the Foundation helps develop treatments that restore vision to people who’ve been blind most of their lives.

Dr. Amedi also demonstrated a new high-tech cane which, by processing tones and vibrations, lets the user know what is ahead and to the sides. It also indicates changes in depth – for example, when a person reaches a curb and needs to step down. Dr. Amedi’s team is paving the way for a new type of mobility for individuals who don’t even have light perception.

All in all, David and I were extremely impressed with the caliber and depth of the research being conducted at Hadassah, and are proud that FFB can contribute to these outstanding efforts.

As I headed back to the hotel, I reflected on the remarkable juxtaposition of history and innovation that we encountered in Jerusalem. It’s an indelible and moving memory.

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