From Oct. 23 to 26, 2003, in collaboration with the Israel Atherosclerosis Society, Columbia University sponsored a large international scientific meeting in Eilat, Israel, titled "Frontiers in Cardiovascular Science." Dr. Neil Shachter, associate professor of clinical medicine at P&S, was the principal organizer of the conference.
"Frontiers in Cardiovascular Science" was the largest international scientific conference ever sponsored either by the Israel Atherosclerosis Society or by Columbia's Office of Continuing Medical Education. The conference, which had 66 speakers, focused on lipid metabolism and atherosclerosis but also touched other areas of cardiovascular science. It was held in Israel specifically to oppose ongoing attempts at an academic boycott of that country. The speakers included not only prominent Israeli scientists, but also 38 major international non-Israeli scientists, including six from Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons.
This was the second year the conference was held in Israel and this year it grew to double the program size and twice the number of attendees 240. Given the current circumstances in Israel, the success of the meeting speaks both to the importance of Israeli scientists in the international scientific community and to Columbia's global prominence in lipoprotein metabolism and atherosclerosis research. The meeting showcased both of these aspects to a wide audience.
Numerous novel scientific discoveries were announced for the first time at this meeting. Here are just a few examples:
In one very exciting presentation, Dr. Kevin J. Williams from the Department of Medicine at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia presented findings that showed how the well-known statin cholesterol-lowering drugs may prevent or treat AIDS-related dementia and eradicate the central nervous system as an HIV-1 sanctuary.
Dr. Hannia Campos of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and the Centro Centroamericano de Población Universidad de Costa Rica, presented work on "Genetic and Dietary Determinants of Myocardial Infarction in Costa Rica." This thorough study showed that omega-3 unsaturated fat, naturally scarce in tropical regions, is an important protective factor and proposed that promotion of vegetable oils with high content of alpha-linolenic acid will improve the cardiovascular heart disease risk profile of populations living in tropical regions.
Dr. Michael R. Rosen, Gustavus A. Pfeiffer Professor of Pharmacology, professor of pediatrics and director, Center for Molecular Therapeutics at Columbia, presented "Genes, Stem Cells and Biological Pacemakers," in which he described experiments to reconstitute pacemaker function in diseased hearts using biological means and without the use of external devices.
In addition to the scientific content, the floor was given over during one afternoon session to discussion of the boycott of Israeli scientists and the current political situation. Mideast scholar Martin Kramer, political scientist Yossi Shain, essayist and intellectual Manfred Gerstenfeld and German diplomat Stefan Schlueter discussed, from various perspectives, the importance to both the body and soul of the global academy of continued strong ties to Israel. The point was made that, apart from all practical considerations, confronting anti-Semitism remains a moral imperative; however anti-Semitism may be cloaked.
At the Saturday evening gala dinner, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Daniel C. Kurtzer, a Columbia alumnus, gave a thoughtful and comprehensive overview of U.S. policy toward Israel and the Middle East. The ambassador emphasized that security concerns occupy a very small fraction of the U.S. embassy staff in Israel and are a very small part of the U.S. relationship with Israel, which involves broad academic, artistic and commercial ties. In my remarks following the ambassador's speech, I pointed out that Columbia's involvement in the "Frontiers" meeting mirrors, in microcosm, the U.S. relationship with Israel. Columbia's involvement with the meeting began out of concern for Israel's security, in this case its academic security, but then progressed to a much broader, mutually beneficial relationship consistent with other close ties. Columbia's partnership with the medical school of Ben Gurion University of the Negev is the most prominent such example, one of many.
The conference also featured a comprehensive session on Israel's biotech industry. Participants heard from representatives of all elements of the country's biotech infrastructure its university privatization offices, intellectual property lawyers, venture capital firms, and about companies' new ventures with giant corporations. Israel has an extremely innovative and successful biotech industry, a part of the successful high-tech sector that comprises a large portion of the country's economy. Although it is a country of just 6.5 million people, Israel has more than 100 companies listed on the Nasdaq securities exchange, a number that allows it to rank third, after the United States and Canada. The fact that Israel has become a high-tech powerhouse, investing and bringing to market products that will benefit people throughout the world, is a fact that is often overshadowed by the day-to-day coverage of the minutiae of the seemingly endless Middle East conflict.
While it is certainly true that Israel is a country in crisis on many fronts, innovation and technology have continued to blossom and grow amid the turmoil and the country has emerged as a national model for technology entrepreneurship. Columbia's collaboration with the Israel Atherosclerosis Society on the "Frontiers in Cardiovascular Science" conference is just one example of how an American academic institution that is willing to read past headlines can develop a partnership that is beneficial not only to both of the parties but, ultimately, to the world community. It also is an example of the value that can be created for the university by a willingness to rationally engage opportunities that emerge out of the extramural passions of its diverse faculty.