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Featured Researcher: Tamir Ben-Hur, M.D., Ph.D.
Each quarter we feature a researcher who has received funding from Cure Alzheimer’s Fund. These profiles tell their story—their background, the research projects they’re working on and why their research is important to finding a cure. This quarter we are featuring Cure Alzheimer’s Fund Stem Cell Consortium member Tamir Ben-Hur, M.D., Ph.D., professor of neurology, Israel S. Wechsler Chair in Neurology, chairman, Department of Neurology and Hadassah University Medical Center.
Tamir Ben-Hur was born and raised in Jerusalem, Israel, where he still resides today. The younger of two boys, Ben-Hur developed an interest in life sciences when he was in high school. “My father was a surgeon and that might have influenced me, but I was so interested in biology that I read about it on my own, even though it wasn’t one of my majors.”
Ben-Hur had to put his interest on hold when he joined the army after graduation. “It’s compulsory for all Israeli men to serve in the military after high school,” explains Ben-Hur. “It’s part of our culture and our country depends on it.” Ben-Hur served in combat as a soldier for four years and worked his way up to the rank of major while serving in the reserve.
After the army, Ben-Hur was accepted to the Hebrew University—Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem—where he eventually received his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees. In Israel, medical school is a seven-year program (six years of studies and a one-year internship), in lieu of college and university. As a first-year student, Ben-Hur wanted to better understand scientific research, so he began working in a lab. “That was 32 years ago,” he says. “I still remember sitting with my professor and hearing about what they were doing in the lab. I took it as a question that needed to be answered.” A couple of weeks later Ben-Hur went back to his professor with a suggestion for an experiment—to show how a virus has a predilection to invade nerve fibers and end up in the brain. “One experiment led to another and became the foundation for my Ph.D. thesis,” adds Ben-Hur. “That’s when I fell in love with neurology. I knew then that it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
After finishing medical school Ben-Hur began his residency at Hadassah University Hospital in the Department of Neurology. Nowadays, when he interviews candidates who are looking for a place to do their residency, he can tell who’s “hooked on neurology” by the way their eyes light up. “That’s how I feel, and those are the people I want to work with.” He describes neurology as the mystery of the brain and the nervous system. “Our feeling and thinking brain is who we are. It’s our identity. It’s the most important essence of life.”
Neurology also appeals to him for a different reason. “While clinical medicine has become more and more specialized, neurology is one of the last clinical fields left that takes a holistic approach to the patient—not only the medical aspects, but the mental aspects as well. This is the classical approach to medicine that I was raised on, and I try to teach it to the younger generation,” says Ben-Hur. He says science has advanced so much that you can put 15 brain scientists in one room and each one talks in a different language. “We need to rebuild bridges so that scientists and clinicians from different disciplines can talk to each other again and work together, because this is the only real way to find solutions for brain diseases
In addition to being a researcher, Ben-Hur also has been a practicing physician with patients of his own for his entire career. “I wouldn’t give them up for anything. Moreover, the duality of medicine and science is very important, because it gives me perspective. As a physician you encounter the questions that need scientific solutions, so you understand the issues better, and as a scientist you get an important perspective on clinical medicine.”
Stem Cell Research
Ben-Hur did his post-doctoral fellowship in developmental neurobiology of neural stem cells at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. His goal was to learn more about cell biology by combining clinical medicine and research. Since then, Ben-Hur has focused on neural stem cell biology, transplantation of stem cells to the nervous system, neuroimmunology and neurovirology. Today he is chief physician in the Department of Neurology, professor in neurology and chairman of the Department of Neurology at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem. “My work at Hadassah is to try to understand how stem cells from various sources can be used for therapeutic purposes,” says Ben-Hur.
Initially stem cells were seen only as types of cells that could replace missing cells and damaged tissue. But Ben-Hur and his colleagues found that both embryonic and adult stem cells have additional properties that may be very useful for therapy. “The brain is very limited in terms of regeneration,” explains Ben-Hur. His lab was the first in the world to discover that brain stem cells have properties that can inhibit inflammatory processes. His work also showed that stem cells protect their surrounding brain cells from injury and facilitate the repair process. “This was our basic rationale for developing stem cell therapy for multiple sclerosis (MS) that’s already in clinical trials. But stem cell research is not magic,” cautions Ben-Hur. “We need to better understand how they can be manipulated to increase the brain’s ability to protect itself from degeneration.”
Cure Alzheimer’s Fund
Ben-Hur was recruited by Cure Alzheimer’s Fund in 2012 to become part of the Stem Cell Consortium and collaborate on a project using stem cells derived from skin cells to better understand Alzheimer’s disease. His role is to help members of the consortium identify the functional properties of neural stem cells, which may help to protect the brain from degeneration. He will compare these functions in cells derived from genetically manipulated mice and from human sources to determine whether loss of stem cell functional properties plays a role in perpetuating the degenerative brain process in Alzheimer’s disease. “My fellow scientists on this project are top-class and I was very enthusiastic about joining them. I just added my point of view on how to approach stem cells and Alzheimer’s disease and together we wrote a research proposal, Cure Alzheimer’s funded it, and each lab is working on its own part.”
The majority of Ben-Hur’s work had been on MS, but many of the questions the project addresses are related to various neurological diseases. “The people at Cure Alzheimer’s Fund are a wonderful, committed group of individuals who have contributed their own money to do what they can to help fight Alzheimer’s disease. For me, this is what I do. It’s my work. But what they’re doing is really special.”
As a full-time physician who’s involved in full-time research, Ben-Hur made a life decision that leaves very little time left for much else. He is married and has three boys, ages 17, 23 and 25. But he also manages to find time for exercise, mixing in some culture and for reading, which he says provides peace and quiet and is “good for the mind.”
To learn more about the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund Stem Cell Consortium and how researchers are working toward finding a cure, visit http://www.curealz.org/projects/stem-cell-consortium.