Ob­ser­va­tions

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - BRIAN BLUM

Are Is­raeli sci­en­tists on the verge of de­vel­op­ing a cure for can­cer? That was the claim from an Is­raeli start-up called Ac­cel­er­ated Evo­lu­tion Biotech­nolo­gies (AEBi), first re­ported in The Jerusalem Post a few weeks ago.

The story went vi­ral, and the com­pany’s re­searchers were in­ter­viewed by breath­less me­dia out­lets from Fox to Forbes.

The only prob­lem: it wasn’t true. Or maybe it will be true, but isn’t yet.

Com­pa­nies that dan­gle the po­ten­tial of an im­mi­nent can­cer cure pro­vide an ir­re­sistible sound bite for evening news pro­grams. They are of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est for peo­ple like me who have a chronic can­cer and reg­u­larly scan the Web for any hint of a fu­ture that won’t in­clude chemo, ra­di­a­tion or other de­bil­i­tat­ing drugs.

The AEBi story was cer­tainly tan­ta­liz­ing. “We be­lieve we will of­fer in a year’s time a com­plete cure for can­cer,” AEBi’s Dan Ari­dor told the Post. Even bet­ter, he said, “Our can­cer cure will be ef­fec­tive from day one, will last a du­ra­tion of a few weeks and will have no or min­i­mal side ef­fects.”

But as re­porters drilled down in sub­se­quent text, it be­came clear that the com­pany had yet to con­duct clin­i­cal tri­als on hu­mans. The promis­ing re­sults were only from mice – although that couldn’t be ver­i­fied either, as the com­pany hasn’t pub­lished its re­search in any peer-re­viewed med­i­cal jour­nals yet (the norm for sci­en­tific re­search), claim­ing it couldn’t af­ford to do so.

“If I have $100,000, what do I spend it on? Ad­vanc­ing the re­search,” AEBi’s CEO Ilan Mo­rad re­sponded, when ques­tioned by The Times of Is­rael, “or do­ing many ex­per­i­ments [just] to write an ar­ti­cle?”

Mo­rad then ad­mit­ted that clin­i­cal tri­als might start only “in a year’s time or so” and only if the com­pany could raise enough money.

Dr. Ben Neel, di­rec­tor of the Perl­mut­ter Can­cer Cen­ter at New York Univer­sity, was livid, telling the New York Post that “this claim is yet an­other in a long line of spu­ri­ous, ir­re­spon­si­ble and ul­ti­mately cruel false prom­ises for can­cer pa­tients.” Other ex­perts and pub­li­ca­tions fol­lowed suit with their own out­raged re­sponses.

The ruckus prompted the Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio pro­gram On the Me­dia to reis­sue its “Break­ing News Con­sumer’s Hand­book” for health re­port­ing. The pro­gram be­seeched lis­ten­ers to be wary of ex­pres­sions such as “med­i­cal mir­a­cle,” “first-of-its-kind treat­ment” and “game changer,” as well as phase I tri­als that “make claims about ben­e­fits as if these things are al­ready avail­able at the cor­ner drug store.”

I un­der­stand why the story was dis­sem­i­nated so widely. Many peo­ple des­per­ately want a cure to be dis­cov­ered, whether can­cer pa­tients, their loved ones and care­givers, or those wor­ried they’ll be among the 50% (of men, for women it’s a one-inthree chance) who’ll con­tract some form of the dis­ease in their life­times.

In Is­rael, can­cer kills more Jews than any other dis­ease. Around the world, 18 mil­lion new can­cer cases are di­ag­nosed each year.

As a re­sult, we cling to un­sub­stan­ti­ated claims like those from AEBi or to anec­do­tal ev­i­dence about won­der cures. My cur­rent du­bi­ous fa­vorite: “Rick Simp­son Oil,” a su­per-con­cen­trated form of THCrich cannabis that ad­her­ents claim can knock out can­cer as it did for Cana­dian cannabis ac­tivist Simp­son, who boasted that when he ap­plied the epony­mous oil to his own skin can­cer, the spots healed in a mat­ter of days.

I AGREE with Karin Mayer Ru­bin­stein, CEO of Is­rael Ad­vanced Tech­nol­ogy In­dus­tries, who warned that AEBi’s wild prog­nos­ti­ca­tions had “dam­aged the image of Is­rael’s life sci­ences in­dus­try.” In­deed, the at­ten­tion at­tracted by the AEBi story does a dis­ser­vice to the many com­pa­nies and re­searchers work­ing dili­gently – and ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tific stan­dards – on treat­ing can­cer.

I’ve re­ported on a num­ber of such com­pa­nies in Is­rael.

Tel Aviv-based Al­pha-Tau, for ex­am­ple, says it has dis­cov­ered a way to use al­pha ra­di­a­tion to de­stroy tu­mors with­out harm­ing the healthy tis­sue around them. In stud­ies with squa­mous cell car­ci­noma, “We were able to elim­i­nate more than 70% of the tu­mors en­tirely and to cause shrink­age of 100% of the tu­mors,” CEO Uzi Sofer told me.

Is­raeli sci­en­tist Rony Da­han is de­vel­op­ing a tech­nique that may boost the ef­fec­tive­ness of cer­tain types of im­munother­apy drugs by up to 30 times.

Dr. Michael Har-Noy’s com­pany Im­muno­va­tive Ther­a­pies is work­ing on a prod­uct that at­tacks spe­cific tu­mors, then “teaches” the im­mune sys­tem to hunt down sim­i­lar can­cer cells else­where in the body on its own.

Ben-Gu­rion Univer­sity of the Negev Prof. Varda Shoshan-Bar­matz has de­vel­oped a new mol­e­cule that her team says in­hibits the pro­duc­tion of a pro­tein found in many tu­mors called VDAC1. It also “re­pro­grams” tu­mor cells to re­turn to their orig­i­nal non­cancer­ous state.

Then of course there’s Kite Pharma, the com­pany founded by Is­raeli Arie Bellde­grun, based on work done by Weiz­mann In­sti­tute of Sci­ence Prof. Zelig Esh­har that re­sulted in the de­vel­op­ment of a truly rev­o­lu­tion­ary lym­phoma treat­ment called CAR-T. Gilead Sci­ences ac­quired Kite Pharma in 2017 for some $12 bil­lion.

Ad­dress­ing the AEBi re­port­ing, Dr. Mark Is­rael, na­tional ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Is­rael Can­cer Re­search Fund, writes that “claims of a Holy Grail cru­elly mis­lead can­cer pa­tients and un­der­mine sup­port for can­cer re­search.”

That said, he adds, “the fu­ture of can­cer re­search has never looked more promis­ing – par­tic­u­larly in Is­rael.”

Per­son­ally, I don’t care where a cure for can­cer is de­vel­oped. But I will be ex­tra proud if the so­lu­tion to my own di­ag­no­sis is dis­cov­ered right here in our own back­yard.

The writer’s book, To­taled: The Bil­lion-Dol­lar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is avail­able on Ama­zon and other on­line book­sell­ers.

In Is­rael, can­cer kills more Jews than any other dis­ease... as a re­sult, we cling to un­sub­stan­ti­ated claims

(Pho­tos: Cour­tesy)

AL­PHA-TAU says it has dis­cov­ered a way to use al­pha ra­di­a­tion to de­stroy tu­mors with­out harm­ing the healthy tis­sue around them.

IM­MUNO­VA­TIVE STAFF per­form qual­ity con­trol tests in the lab.

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