Birax – of mice, men and speed-dating

Birax – of mice, men and speed-dating

Birax for JN by Jenni Frazer April 12 2016

With a grin, one of the organisers of the third Birax conference on regenerative medicine noted that part of the second day of the event would be devoted to… speed-dating.

She was not altogether joking. Birax — the British-Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership — was holding its largest ever conference, this year based at the Mathematical Institute in Oxford. More than 350 Israeli scientists had come to the UK to join their British counterparts in two days of passionate discussions and presentations.

About a third of the delegates are already involved in scientific projects in vital fields such as Parkinson’s, dementia, multiple sclerosis and other degenerative conditions.

But many of the other participants had come to Oxford actively looking for a partner — and the Birax organisers were determined to help them.

From basic indicators such as different coloured lanyards for the Israeli and British scientists to a “speed-dating” session in which people could meet each other to see if their research was compatible, everything at Birax was dedicated to getting groundbreaking co-operation in place.

Dr Roi Gazit, who holds a chair in health sciences at Ben-Gurion University, was making his first visit to Britain in the hope of linking up with a British opposite number to help him in his research. He said: “It’s very easy to read other people’s work, but this conference gives us a great opportunity to meet. Like so many Israelis, I studied first in Israel and then took the usual route of post-doctorate studies in America. But I heard about Birax and the possibility of working with UK scientists, and this conference is great: it’s just big enough to be impressive and just small enough to be intimate”.

Dr Gazit’s work relates to the reprogramming of stem cells and whether contaminated adult blood cells can be cleansed. Presently he works with mice but hopes to attract a British partner who can advance the research and develop the programme in humans.

Dr David Hampton of Edinburgh University is coming to the end of a three-year Birax funded project in which he works with Dr Yossi Nishri, who is a research student at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.

Dr Hampton, who is based at the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences, is working on research into multiple sclerosis. He and Dr Nishri are working on two aspects — a model of the path of the human disease in Edinburgh, and cell systems in Jerusalem.

“Hadassah contacted us initially,” Dr Hampton said. “I’ve had many collaborations in the past 15 years but what makes Birax work is where the science is good and the people are good, too — because there is a social element to this, as well. We really get on: Yossi has been to Edinburgh three or four times and I’ve made return visits to Jerusalem. It’s been very worthwhile. You can make all the phone calls and read all the literature, but talking is key, and that’s what this event offers.”

Dr Hampton acknowledged that some scientists were territorial about their work but pointed out the dozens of conversations going on around us — Israeli blue lanyards deep in discussion with British grey, men and women, young and old, religious and atheist.

Partners in the Birax work include the Alzheimer’s Society, Arthritis Reseach UK, the British Heart Foundation, the MS Society and Parkinson’s UK.

  • 21 April, 2016