Studies in Israel by Abigail Newman

Wyndham Deedes Scholar

Last summer, I was privileged to receive the Wyndham Deedes Memorial Travel scholarship, which allowed me to undertake a research project for two months in the Levenberg Lab of Stem Cell and Tissue Engineering at the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa. During my degree in Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College London, I developed a keen interest in the rapidly growing field of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. Tissue engineering is the application of engineering and life sciences towards creating functional tissue to restore, repair or improve tissue and organ function. Regenerative medicine is a branch of tissue engineering which focuses on the body using its own systems to recreate cells and rebuild tissues and organs. I was eager to spend the summer researching in a laboratory that specialises in this field of research so I could gain practical experience and develop my understanding of this area.

I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to research at the Levenberg Lab, which is world renowned for its work combining cellular biology, tissue engineering, and mechanical engineering. When tissue and organs are transplanted, it is important that they contain blood vessels, so that blood containing oxygen and nutrients can be delivered to the body.

Inadequate blood supply to an organ can lead to organ failure, so the formation of blood vessels (vascularization) in engineered tissue is fundamental to graft survival. The projects in the Levenberg Lab focus on vascularization of engineered tissue.

Human blood vessels contain small gaps so that useful substances can enter and leave the blood, but some fluid will leak out of the blood vessels through these gaps. This fluid, which is known as extracellular fluid and is made up of water and small proteins, would cause swelling if there was not a mechanism to return it to the blood. The lymphatic system returns 3 litres of fluid to the blood system each day via lymphatic vessels and lymph nodes. Once extracellular fluid enters the lymphatic vessels, it is known as lymph. Lymph contains white blood cells, which fight infection as the fluid is transported throughout the body via the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system may be damaged due to injury, surgery, radiation or physical defects from birth, which will impair its function. It is important to find a way to replace or repair a damaged lymphatic system and there is a strong motivation to find a tissue engineering solution.

My project was to grow engineered lymphatic vessels. I carried out experiments on cells that line the inner surface of lymphatic vessels, lymphatic endothelial cells (LECs). I investigated growing LECs in different co-cultures and scaffolds to determine which conditions best promoted lymphatic vascularization. To quantify my results, I labelled the cells with fluorescent probes so that I could image the cells using a confocal microscope and obtain 3 dimensional images. I was then able to analyze my results by applying various imaging processing techniques to these high-resolution images, which gave me information about lymphatic vessel length, diameter and density.

The Technion is situated in Haifa, the third largest city in Israel, and although I had visited Israel in the past, I had never spent time in Haifa. It didn’t take long to get accustomed to life in Haifa, and by the end of my two month stay, it felt as if I had lived there for years. The city is a hub of activity and I was never stuck for something to do. On the Mediterranean coast, Haifa is home to beautiful beaches, which were just a short bus ride from where I lived, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending evenings relaxing at the beach after long days working in the lab. I took full advantage of the climate and geography of the city, which are so different to what I am used to at university in London.

 

My colleagues were natives of Haifa and they were invaluable guides to the city. They introduced me to the best restaurants and cheapest supermarkets in the area, as well as inviting me to local events that took place throughout the summer. We attended the Haifa beer festival together, where live Israeli rock music kept hundreds of people dancing late into the night. We also frequented various restaurants, repeatedly returning to the most delicious hummus restaurant, Dubnov 26, just outside the Technion campus. Another great afternoon was spent hiking in Nesher Park, which is known for its hanging bridges that allow you to cross the valley of Nahal Katia and complete the marked trail through woodlands and caves. One colleague who lives next to the park acted as our personal tour guide and directed us off the beaten track so we could see the most spectacular views.

 

Living on the Technion campus gave me the opportunity to fully experience life as a Technion student. I got involved with student life on campus from the beginning of my time at the Technion, attending social events offered both by the international school and the Israeli school. I enjoyed meeting students from all over the world, and made valuable friendships that I hope will remain for years to come.

 

During the two months I spent in Israel, I had the chance to visit other parts of the country. I found the culture warm and welcoming, creating an atmosphere I have not experienced anywhere else. One weekend, I travelled to Jerusalem and experienced a completely different facet of Israel. Visiting the Machane Yehuda market, or “shuk”, on Friday afternoon was an exhilarating experience. The shuk was bustling with people of all ages and origins, creating an energizing atmosphere in the lead up to the Sabbath. Walking the streets of the Katamon neighbourhood at sunset on Friday was a unique experience. The calmness was almost tangible as the sounds of traffic faded and were replaced by harmonious singing coming from synagogues as people welcomed the Sabbath. Visiting the Western Wall at night was a particularly meaningful experience. People from all over the world feel a connection to this place, where people have prayed for centuries.

In contrast to this, Tel Aviv’s modern, metropolitan vibe offered a completely different Israel experience. You can be busy all 24 hours of the day in Tel Aviv, visiting museums, eating in any of the many restaurants serving authentic Mediterranean dishes, sunbathing on the beach and staying up all night partying. The beaches were heaving with people, especially on Saturday, and the atmosphere was very social, with many people playing “matkot” (beach tennis) and “shesh-besh” (backgammon). The sea was calm and warm even at night and I loved walking along the beach at sunset or in the evening after dinner, sometimes stopping for a glass of wine in one of the many bars along the sand.

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Another place I visited was Netanya, a coastal city a few kilometres north of Tel Aviv. Although the city is not as lively as Tel Aviv, the beach there is beautiful, with golden sand surrounded by cliffs, and I lost track of time walking by the sea in the afternoon.

I can certainly say that my past summer in Israel was a life-changing experience. My Hebrew became fluent, since I was working in a lab with Hebrew speakers for two months and travelling round the country independently, meeting new people and making Israeli friends. I loved the challenge of learning science in a different language, and the project I worked on taught me many new skills that I had not had the opportunity to learn before, as well as stimulating me intellectually. Living in a different country and getting to know the city of Haifa allowed me to develop my confidence and learn how to thrive in new situations.

My incredible experience would not have been possible without the help of the AIA and I am so grateful to have been able to have been given this opportunity.

 

Abigail Newman is a fourth-year biomedical engineering MEng student at Imperial College London.