Wednesday 11 February 2015


£3.2 million of funding has been awarded to eight new joint medical research projects by British and Israeli scientists, the British Council announced today.

UK and Israeli research institutions will work together on eight new three-year bilateral projects in to the use of stem cells to tackle degenerative diseases.

The projects, that will develop stem cell therapies to treat diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, liver disease, and Multiple Sclerosis, are the latest additions to the British Council’s Britain Israel Research and Academic Exchange programme (BIRAX), a £10 million initiative of the British Council investing in world-leading research jointly undertaken by scientists in Britain and Israel.

Alan Gemmell, Director of the British Council in Israel said: “BIRAX combines the best of what Britain and Israel can offer the world; world-class scientists working together to improve the lives of millions of people. When the UK’s education and research sectors engage with Israel, the benefits go beyond our two countries and can be truly universal”

Professor Raymond Dwek, CBE, FRS, Director, Glycobiology Institute, Oxford University and Chair of the UK-Israel Science Council said “Every now and then a technology breakthrough in science holds promise for dramatic progress in disease therapy and cures. The BIRAX initiative which is supported by leading scientists in the UK has focussed on stem cell therapies with this goal and acknowledges that the UK science base is complemented by the outstanding work in this area in Israel. This combination offers real hope of substantial progress in may disease areas.

“The quality of the scientists involved and the different areas of medicine which could benefit as a result of their research will be for the benefit everyone – something that a global university like Oxford supports strongly” Prof Dwek added.

Matthew Gould CMG, British Ambassador to Israel said: “Science is right at the heart of UK-Israel relationship. Top British and Israeli scientists are already collaborating to develop cures to some of the most awful diseases. I am delighted that so many medical research powerhouses have now given their support to this collaboration. The new projects we are announcing today have the potential make a real difference to the lives of people who suffer from diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.”

Funding will be awarded to eleven leading universities in Britain and Israel: Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester, Nottingham and Oxford, and Hadassah – Hebrew University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, MIGAL – Galilee Research Institute, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and the Weizmann Institute.

BIRAX Background

The British Council has raised £3.2 million for this round of research funding from leading UK Medical Research Foundations including the British Heart Foundation, JDRF, the Multiple Sclerosis Society UK and Parkinson’s UK [and the UK Stem Cell Foundation].  Additional funders include the Parasol Foundation Trust, Pears Foundation, United Jewish Israel Appeal and the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Charitable Foundation.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron launched the BIRAX research call during his visit to Israel in March 2014.

BIRAX awarded its first research grants to seven projects in 2013.

Britain and Israel are world leaders in science. Both countries continue to win disproportionate numbers of Nobel Prizes.

Notes to Editor

For more information about BIRAX please see and

Alan Gemmell, British Council Director in Israel, and Prof Raymond Dwek, Chair of the UK-Israel Science Council are available for interview on the importance of science in the UK-Israel relationship



 [Co-funded by the British Heart Foundation]

·         Professor Paul Riley - Professor of Regenerative Medicine, University of Oxford

·         Professor Eldad Tzahor - Associate Professor, Weizmann Institute of Science

Today 480 people in the UK will go to hospital having suffered a heart attack. Around seven in ten of those people will survive but irreparable damage will have been caused to the heart making it less able to pump blood around the body. There is no cure for this and the shortage of donor hearts mean a transplant is only possible for a lucky few.

In 2011 Professor Paul Riley and his colleagues made an important breakthrough which offered hope of a way to repair the heart without needing a transplant. Professor Riley showed, in mice, how, after damage, adult heart tissue can be stimulated to repair itself by growing new heart muscle cells. He now hopes to learn how we can achieve the same results in people with damaged hearts.

This project will allow Professor Riley to team up with researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. His expertise in the study of the outer layer of the heart, known as the epicardium, which has proven to be a source of cells that can help regenerate the heart will be allied with Professor Tzahor’s knowledge of the processes involved in growing large numbers of heart muscle cells.



 [Co-funded by the British Heart Foundation]

·         Professor Bruno Peault - Professor of Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh

·         Professor Joseph Itskovitz-Eldor - Professor of the Stem Cell Centre, Technion– Israel Institute of Technology

Coronary heart disease, the major cause of heart attacks, is the UK’s single biggest killer and is responsible for around 73,000 deaths in the UK each year. While heart attack survival rates are higher than ever, there is no cure for heart failure following a heart attack where the heart is less able to pump blood around the body.

There is a significant shortage of donor hearts so researchers hope the treatments of the future will come in the form of regenerative medicine where damage to the heart is repaired or lost tissue is regenerated.

Professor Péault and Professor Itskovitz-Eldor are focusing on spider-like cells, that wrap around blood vessels, called pericytes. These cells are known to have the ability to stimulate the regeneration of tissue. But different pericyte types appear to have specific functions – some are responsible for the formation of scar tissue after damage rather than the regeneration of the damaged tissue.

By identifying the best pericytes for mending broken hearts, this project will help researchers take an important step towards a regenerative treatment for people whose hearts are damaged by heart attack.




Next generation pacemakers; using cells controlled by light to correct abnormal heart beats

[Co-funded by the British Heart Foundation]

·         Professor Chris Denning - Professor in Stem Cell Biology, University of Nottingham

·         Professor Lior Gepstein, Professor of Medicine and Physiology, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide and around 175,000 people suffer heart attacks each year in the UK each year.

One of the most promising treatments for heart failure is to grow new heart muscles using stem cell technologies that can be transplanted into the heart and improve its pumping power.

For some time Professor Denning’s team has competed with Professor Lior Gepstein’s group at Technion in Israel. On this project, they will work together and share expertise and resources towards the shared goal of regenerating the heart after a heart attack. The strengths of each team will complement each other.

The researchers will work with a pacemaker, which controls heart rhythm using light rather than an electrical impulse. This approach could be used to prevent heart rhythm problems in the grafted tissue which is a major hurdle in using stem cells to mend broken hearts. They will also be looking at a different way to grow heart cells from stem cells that could mean they are more likely to survive and work better after transplant onto the heart.




Identifying the genetic characteristics of diabetes to find new treatments

[Co-funded by JDRF]

·         Professor Neil Hanley - Professor of Medicine & Wellcome Trust Senior Fellow in Clinical Science, Manchester University

·         Professor Benjamin Glaser - Head – Endocrinology and Metabolism Service, Hadassah – Hebrew University

387 million people are living with diabetes worldwide. This is expected to rise to 592 million by 2035.

Our bodies need insulin to turn glucose into energy. When the body doesn’t produce insulin this is caused Type-1 diabetes. It means that beta-cells which produce insulin have been attacked by the body’s own immune system. Increasing the number of working beta-cells is a huge focus of diabetes research. It has been proven difficult to recreate beta-cells dividing.

There are in fact times when these beta cells do divide naturally (during embryo development and in a rare genetic disease). This project will identify the genetic characteristics in these two stages to see if it can be replicated allowing us to make adult beta-cells divide healthily.



[Co-funded by JDRF]


·         Professor Susan Wong - Professor of Experimental Diabetes and Metabolism, Cardiff University

·         Professor Gideon Gross - Professor of Life Sciences, MIGAL – Galilee Research Institute, Kiryat Shmona

One in twelve people has diabetes. It is a chronic disease that occurs when the pancreas is no longer able to make insulin, or when the body cannot make good use of the insulin it produces. Insulin lets glucose from the food we eat pass from the blood stream into the cells in the body to produce energy. Not being able to produce insulin or use it effectively leads to raised glucose levels in the blood. Over the long-term high glucose levels are associated with damage to the body and failure of various organs and tissues.

Type 1 diabetes is caused by an auto-immune reaction where the body’s defence system attacks the cells that produce insulin. The reason this occurs is not fully understood. Prof Wong and Gross have already shown in diabetic mice that we can use gene therapy to stop the attacking cells, without affecting other cells that are important for our general immunity.

This project wants to use gene therapy to target as many harmful cells as possible while also reducing the cells that attack the insulin-producing cells.  



[Co-funded by MS Society]

·         Professor Mark Kotter - Principle Investigator, University of Cambridge   

·         Professor - Shlomo Rotsheker, Director, Brain Disease Research Centre, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is the most widespread disabling neurological condition of young people around the world. There are about 2.5 million people around the world who have been diagnosed. In the United States alone, about 200 new cases are diagnosed each week.

In MS, the immune system mistakenly attacks and damages myelin: the protective coating around nerve fibres. This damage can result in nerve cell death, leading to the accumulation of disability seen in MS. There is an urgent need for therapies that focus on myelin repair and slow or stop the progression of disability.

Through the collaboration of the Kotter (University of Cambridge) and Rotshenker (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) laboratories, this project aims to identify novel ways of promoting myelin repair and preventing nerve cell death. They will focus on removing the debris built up during myelin damage, and stimulating remyelination of exposed nerve fibres.

This research has the potential to address the currently unmet need for regenerative treatments that prevent the gradual worsening of disability seen in MS.




[Co-funded by Parkinson’s UK]

·         Professor Roger Barker, Department of Clinical Neuroscience, University of Cambridge

·         Professor Hossam Haick, Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology

One in 500 people in the UK have Parkinson’s, which can leave people struggling to walk, speak and sleep, and has no cure. There are 127,000 people in the UK with the condition, and an estimated 7.5 million worldwide.

Breath tests have been used to diagnose cancer, with dogs even being able to sniff out the disease, but this is the first time scientists have looked at what someone’s breath could tell them about whether they have Parkinson’s. 

The collaboration between Prof Barker and Prof Haick will study around 200 people and see if just by looking at their breath they can determine which have Parkinson’s.  The scientists have already shown in a smaller study of 57 people that breath alone could differentiate people with Parkinson’s and healthy individuals.




[Co-funded by the UK Stem Cell Foundation]

·         Professor Stuart Forbes - Professor of Transplantation and Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh

·         Dr Yaakov Nahmias, Director - Centre of Bioengineering, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The liver plays an important role in many bodily functions like digestion, immunity and metabolism. When it becomes diseased or injured its loss of function can cause significant damage to the body. Liver disease is the only major cause of death still increasing year-on-year and remains the fifth ‘big killer’ in England and Wales after heart, cancer, stroke and respiratory disease. Liver transplantation is the only treatment for end stage liver disease, but organs are scarce.

Stem cell derived liver cells can be used to treat liver failure or genetic deficiencies but regretfully, these cells to date have shown very limited function in comparison to regular liver cells.


When under chronic stress, the bile duct produces a new line of stem cells that emerge in the liver. Prof Forbes and Dr Nahmias hope that these cells can be used to regenerate damaged livers and will use advance bioengineering approaches and microfluidic technology to mimic the bile duct and track the cells that are produced. 

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