These 5 Israeli advances could transform cancer treatment
By Ben Hartman
Many of the world’s most effective cancer treatments have roots in Israeli research. The work taking place in Israeli labs today may lead to lifesaving treatments years in the future.
Here are five promising areas Israeli researchers are studying in their quest for better cancer detection and treatment.
Mutant reeducation camp and the fight against ovarian cancer
Mutant reeducation may sound like the plot of the next “X-Men” movie, but for a team of Israeli researchers it could be central to finding new treatments for ovarian cancer, an especially deadly disease because of the difficulties of early detection.
In a program at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science financed in part by the Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF), Dr. Varda Rotter is looking for ways to fight the disease on the molecular level using a protein known as the “king of tumor suppressors.”
The protein, p53, stops the formation of tumors. But when p53 mutates, it makes cancer cells more malignant and boosts their resistance to drugs. Rotter and her team have identified a small number of molecules that are able to “reeducate” mutant p53 and restore it to its role scanning for damaged DNA and stopping the development of tumors. They are also looking for methods to reeducate the mutant p53 to fight and eradicate mutant cells.
“We are trying to find a way to convert or reeducate the mutant p53 to its role as the ‘guardian of the genome,’” Rotter said. “It will reeducate the p53 into the right type of p53 and will show that under such circumstances there is a reduction of cell death in treated cells.”
Rotter hopes her team’s research will result in methods that can be applied along with immunotherapy to give women with ovarian cancer a better chance of beating the disease.
Restoring infertility? Hit the restart button.
For many cancer patients, surviving is just the first part of the battle. They often face serious lifelong problems, such as infertility or the loss of healthy tissue that is difficult to regrow.
The key, Dr. Jacob Hanna of the Weizmann Institute believes, lies in stem cells. Stem cells are early-stage cells that are capable of dividing into infinitely more cells and have the potential to become different cell types, such as bone, skin or muscle and can help repair damaged tissue.
Hanna is using ICRF funding to research ways to take cells from healthy areas of the patient’s body and turn them back into induced embryonic stem cells. Because the stem cells in Hanna’s model would come directly from the patient’s DNA rather than from a donor, the tissue would not face rejection.
Hanna believes stem-cell treatments are going to become reality in the next 20 years, and restoring fertility to infertile cancer survivors could be one major benefit.
“We want to make mature human cells in the Petri dish. If this is successful, it could be a major breakthrough for solving infertility problems in general, not only for women who underwent chemotherapy,” Hanna said. “This could stop doctors from avoiding doing chemotherapy because they’re worried about damaging the patient’s fertility,” Hanna added. “It would allow them to give longer treatment or stronger regiments.”
To fight brain cancer, think small. Very, very small.
Glioblastoma, a particularly aggressive and deadly form of brain cancer, carries a very grim prognosis: Patients have a median survival time of about 15 months from the day of discovery.
Tel Aviv University researcher Dr. Dan Peer is seeking ways to fight brain tumors using a targeted nanoparticle platform to transport drugs directly to the sites that need treatment rather than a more general chemotherapy or surgery. Targeted treatments the size of a nanometer – a millionth of a millimeter — would minimize the effects on the rest of the body by targeting only the cancer cells and avoiding healthy cells nearby.
The delivery vehicle would be RNA — ribonucleic acid, whose main role is to carry instructions from DNA. By binding the RNA to a nanoparticle platform, researchers hope to bypass the hurdles that usually thwart drug delivery by specifically targeting the problem areas of the tumor.
By carrying the drugs specifically to the cancer cells and not to the healthy ones, the treatment will have fewer adverse effects and toxicities for the patient while maximizing the drugs’ therapeutic effect.
“If we can somehow diminish the spreading of the tumor and improve diagnosis and therapeutic effect,” Peer said, “that will be beneficial for the patient.”
Fighting carcinomas: Rehab for non-malignant cells
For tumors to expand and metastasize, they “recruit” non-malignant cells in the tumor microenvironment and get them to work for them and help them evade the immune system. Dr. Ruth Scherz-Shouval of the Weizmann Institute is studying the tumor microenvironment to determine how non-cancerous cells get reprogrammed to act against the body and support the tumor rather than defend the body against the tumorous growth.
“The cells of the microenvironment don’t have the mutation that causes cancer cells to become cancer cells – yet they do things they are not supposed to do,” she said. “We are interested in understanding how this happens.”
Scherz-Shouval compared treatment in the microenvironment to rehabilitating a nonviolent offender who can still be put on the right path — unlike a hardened felon (the tumorous cell) who is too far gone to save. She hopes her research, backed by the ICRF, will lead to a more generalized way to target cells in the microenvironment that will complement current cancer treatments and give patients a better chance at recovery.
Wanted: A better way to fight leukemia
Most leukemia treatments today focus on chemotherapy, steroid drugs and stem cell transplants. But Ben-Gurion University of the Negev researcher Roi Gazit is on the hunt for more effective, targeted treatments.
“Our models will help to better specify which treatment may suit a specific type, and even sub-type, of the disease,” said Gazit. “Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for leukemia. That’s why we need tailor-made models to fit the treatment to the disease.”
Gazit is focusing on how to develop targeted treatment of cancer cells using hematopoietic stem cells — stem cells used in cancer treatment because of their ability to divide and form new and different kinds of blood cells.
The research involves taking primary cells — cells cultured directly from a subject — and turning them into malignant leukemia growth inside mice. By examining how the leukemia develops, Gazit is exploring ways that hematopoietic stem cells may be deployed to arrest the leukemia.
The research models his lab is using, part of a project supported by ICRF could help scientists develop more types of immunotherapy and more ways to use stem cells to combat leukemia.
“With any new information we can gain better understanding, which translates into better treatment,” Gazit said.
Conversation with…Tamir Gilat
Chairman of Israel Cancer Research Fund to share his story of cancer survival in Greenwich
By Stacey Dresner
GREENWICH – Tamir Gilat, chairman of the Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) will share his personal story of cancer survival at the ICRF Greenwich chapter’s Second Annual Heroes for Hope on Sunday, Oct. 15, 6 p.m. at Temple Shalom.
Hosted by Rabbi Mark S. Golub, the 2017 community heroes to be honored at the Oct. 15 event are the late Ben Zinbarg and Joan Zinbarg Hochberg.
Ben Zinbarg was a board member and past president of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien and later served on the national board. He was the founding president of the Jewish Community Endowment Foundation, a member of the board of the Bi-Cultural Day School and the Open University, the online university of Israel.
Joan Zinbarg Hochberg served as women’s division president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford. She was also involved in the JCC of Stamford Center Women and the Chai Group of Hadassah. Together, Ben and Joan initiated the Zinbarg Camp Scholarship Fund at Jewish Family Services.
As chairman of ICRF Israel, Tamir Gilat dedicates much of his time raising funds for cancer research in Israel. In 2011 Gilat, an attorney, businessman and a former goalkeeper for the Maccabi Tel Aviv professional soccer team, was diagnosed with cancer and had surgery immediately. A few months later, another form of cancer was found in his body and again he was told that his days were numbered. Gilat agreed to participate in an experiment conducted on a few hundred patients around the world, headed by Prof. Bella Kaufman of the Sheba Medical Center and Dr. Talia Golan. He is the only patient in the study with his type of cancer who remains alive today. Gilat attributes this to the lifesaving or life-extending drugs, the doctors and mental fortitude.
Besides his own cancer battle, Gilat was further touched by the disease when his wife Keren died from breast cancer three months ago.
Tamir Gilat recently talked with the Jewish Ledger about his battle with cancer and about the important cancer research being done in Israel through the funding of IRCF.
Q: Can you tell us about your cancer diagnosis and your cancer treatment?
A: I was diagnosed Feb. 8, 2011 with two different cancers. I had a whipple procedure (a major surgical operation involving the removal of the head of the pancreas, the duodenum, the proximal jenunum, gallbladder, and part of the stomach), and also had my left kidney removed.
The follow-up treatment was 12 chemotherapy treatments. After the 11th treatment, I felt something was wrong and called my doctor to tell her, “I feel my cancer is back.” The doctor said it was impossible. Tests were done and indeed the cancer was back. The doctor then told me “There are no more treatments. You only have a few months to live.”
Q: How did you hear about the experimental treatment at Sheba Medical Center?
A: The next week, my doctor, Dr. Talia Golan, medical director at Sheba Medical Center who is dedicated to advancing pancreatic cancer research, called to tell me about an experimental treatment with Sheba Medical Center and Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Dr. Bella Kaufman of Sheba Medical Center was head of the trial. The purpose of the study was to extend the life expectancy of cancer patients with breast, ovarian, or pancreatic metastasis and the BRCA gene. The 14-month treatment was a pill, a PARP inhibitor from the family of Olaparib.
Q: Most other patients who were a part of the experimental treatment survey died, but you have survived. Why do you think this is so?
A: The reasons I survived were because of luck and mental fortitude. I was at the right place at the right time. I also had the best doctors treating me.
Q: How did you hear about the Israel Cancer Research Fund?
A: I was introduced to the Israel Cancer Research Fund by my late wife, who attended an ICRF parlor event several years ago. In 2011, we decided to host an ICRF event at our home and 80-100 people attended. It was then that I fell in love with the organization and the brilliant young scientists who are working tirelessly to find a cure for this dreaded disease.
Q: Why is the ICRF so important?
A: ICRF is very important for Israel and for cancer research globally. Our talented scientists think outside of the box. They are constantly looking for new treatments and solutions to extend life. In addition, the research conducted in Israel is less expensive than the U.S. and Europe. ICRF provides incentive for its world-class scientists to remain in Israel, preventing the brain drain. With the 2017/18 grants, ICRF has now funded 21,348 grants totaling $63,866,500.
Q: Do you believe a cure for cancer will come from the minds and research of Israeli researchers?
A: I have every reason to believe that the cure for cancer may likely come from the research of Israeli scientists. ICRF has existed 40-plus years and in that time we have seen many breakthroughs that have extended the lives of many cancer patients around the world. ICRF-funded research has helped lead to the development of life-saving drugs such as Gleevec, Doxil and Velcade, the discovery of the p53 tumor gene and the identification the Philadelphia Chromosome, the first abnormal chromosome found in leukemia. Israeli scientists took part in the research leading to the development of the immunotherapy drug that I am currently on.
Q: What specifically are the funds raised by ICRF used for?
A: Currently ICRF is using its funds for studies in bone, brain, breast, colorectal, head and pancreatic, pediatric, prostate and skin cancers, anticancer drug mechanisms, drug resistance, and target therapy, and a host of other areas of cancer research studies.
Q: What are some of the promising treatments for breast cancer that researchers are working on in Israel?
A: There have been many significant breakthroughs in breast cancer research over the years. For example, Professor Ephrat Levy-Lahad is collaborating on a long-term project with the University of Washington’s Dr. Mary-Claire King — the breast cancer research pioneer who discovered the BCRA-1 gene mutation that causes cancer — on a genome sequencing study of Israeli women with inherited breast and ovarian cancer genes. The two women are using a grant from the Israel Cancer Research Fund to apply genomic technology to study BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 mutations and their implications for breast cancer risk in non-Ashkenazi women in Israel, who are similar to populations in Europe and the United States. In a project that is testing thousands of women for deadly cancer mutations, they are also studying how mutations in genes other than BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 impact inherited breast cancer in non-Ashkenazi Jews.
Q: How are you doing now?
A: In 2015, I had another operation. I started immunotherapy and I am still in treatment every two weeks. I am focusing on how to live with cancer and not fight cancer. I am recovering from the death of my beloved wife, Keren, from breast cancer, three months ago. I am holding the family together. There is a lot of pain but also optimism and belief in the future. I am not angry. This is life and we need to learn how to deal with the challenges that life presents us. There is no conspiracy against people who get sick. I am grateful that through experimental drugs we were able to prolong my wife’s life for another two years.
Q: This is kind of a trite question, but how has cancer changed you?
A: How has cancer changed me? It turned my life upside down! As a result of my cancer I had to quit my career in international business and law. I have learned how to live day by day. I also learned how to feel gratitude for what I have, and to appreciate the basic things in life. I feel for the first time I am totally content with what I have in my life right now.
For more information, contact David Kweskin, Connecticut-area director of ICRF at (203) 321-1006, or David.Kweskin@icrfonline.org.
What you should know…
Did you know that Jews are at higher risk to develop hereditary breast and ovarian cancer than the rest of the population? One in 40 Ashkenazi Jews- men and women- carries a BRCA gene mutation, nearly 10 times the rate of the general population. Recent studies show that Sephardic Jews may also be genetically predisposed to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.
To learn more, join Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts for “Jewish Genetics 101: What You Should Know about Breast Cancer and Inheritance,” on Wednesday, Nov. 1
from 7 – 8:30 p.m. at Lander Grinspoon Academy, 257 Prospect St., Northampton. The program is free and open to the public.
Staff from the Family Cancer Risk Program of Baystate Medical Center will present on the BRCA genes, associated cancer risks, when to test, family history, options for treatment, emotional consequences and insurance concerns. National resources will be available and time will be set aside for questions and answers with experts in the field. Light refreshments will be served.
Pre-register by email email@example.com or call (413) 737-2601. This program is co-sponsored by Family Cancer Risk Program of Baystate Medical Center and Lander Grinspoon Academy.