From detecting Hamas tunnels to detecting cancer

Elscint founder Dr. Avraham Suhami developed technology for detecting tunnels, but the IDF turned him down. Now he is applying it to early detection of breast cancer.

By GLOBES
December 12, 2016 12:30
gaza

Hamas shows new tunnels built in Gaza. (photo credit: ARAB MEDIA)

"I was dealing with tunnel detection up until three years ago, because the tunnels were threatening Israel," says Dr. Avraham Suhami. "I'm an individualist, and I found what I found, but no one wanted to listen.

"I contacted the IDF chief of staff and everyone involved. I went on repeating and explaining, until someone issued an order, 'Don't talk to Suhami.' So I applied the invention for detecting tunnels to early detection of breast cancer. It's essentially the same idea; the only difference is the size. The tunnel is different from its surroundings, and a tumor is different from its surroundings."

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The "nuisance" bothering the chief of staff is no one other than the father of medical device development in Israel - the man who founded Elscint and brought to the US in the 1970s in the first-ever IPO of an Israeli company on a US stock exchange. Elscint grew and developed, and was eventually sold in parts to medical device giants GE and Royal Philips, which based their development centers in Israel on the company, each of which has hundreds of employees.

It appears that his achievements have been forgotten, and his tunnel detection solution was buried.

"I'm sick and tired of mediocrity"
Hamas tunnel found in southern Gaza

With Suhami's solution for diagnosing breast cancer, things are different. Suhami presented the solution to senior figures at Rambam Health Care Campus, headed by hospital director Dr. Rafi Beyar. He put Suhami in touch with Prof. Marsha Javitt, one of the world's leading women in oncological imaging for women. Javitt immigrated to Israel shortly before that, and was appointed manager of the Rambam imaging department. She examined the idea, and confirmed that it was indeed interesting and appeared practical.

Javitt became an enthusiastic supporter of Elscint Mammography, although as of how she has no official position in the company, which Suhami is managing together with his son, Shmuel.

Javitt's story is no less fascinating that that of Suhami. "I grew up in New York. I left high school because I was sick and tired of mediocrity, and I went to study at Brandeis University. I lost my mother to breast cancer when I was 19. She was both my mother and the sole breadwinner at home, because my father was ill. I wanted to leave medical school, but the dean didn't want to listen. He said, 'We'll help you,' and he did, and I finished medical school in three years instead of four, out of necessity, because I already had to start making a living.

"I specialized in breast cancer. I felt that I had to devote my life to this field, and I have been fighting for imaging for women's diseases all my life."

"Globes": You could have chosen treatment of breast cancer, but you chose imaging, in other words, prevention. Why?

Javitt: "It was natural for me, because I'm a little obsessive, and I believe that diagnostic radiology is like mathematics - there's one right answer. If we read the image correctly, we'll know what state the tissue is in. They always told me that my talents were very 'masculine.' That never stopped me. I think that medicine should be based on information and evidence, not on randomness or someone's gut feelings or biased judgment."

Javitt developed a protocol for images, edited leading journals in the field, and served on important committees. "I was among the first to see an MRI device. They sent me patients for this imaging in the 1980s, before anyone know how it worked. We taught ourselves to work with an MRI; there was no one to learn from. CTs were also just beginning at the time."

Did you know about Elscint?

"Of course. We knew and greatly appreciated what Elscint did."

When did you start working at military hospitals?

"After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, I realized that I was too old to join the army as a combat soldier, although I wanted to. They came to my country and killed my people! I thought that was terrible! But I couldn't enlist, and a doctor who studied with me phoned me and asked me to come to the military hospital where they were bringing wounded soldiers from Iraq. He told me, 'Our young people are broken - blown to bits.'

"I worked there for 12 years. They sent us wounded soldiers with injuries all over their bodies. We had to get full body images. Some of them died, and some survived – and suffered enormous pain. I was very pessimistic and heartbroken for a while, because I couldn't do more.

"Then one day, a young man I knew entered my office. He was in the hospital for a year. He had metal rods in his brain, and underwent 10-12 operations, but on that day, he strode into my clinic on his own two feet, and told me, 'I'm going to play golf with my father tonight,' and I realized that everything we did was worth it, despite all those who died and those who remained in a terrible state, because one person left my room to play golf.

"From that moment, my motivation returned, and I went back to being a doctor for these soldiers, who made the world a better place and enabled me to eat my Sabbath meal with my family in peace."

You sound like a real US patriot. What brought you to Israel?

"They always told my husband (Dr. Jonathan Javitt, who founded and managed NeuroRX, a company that produced antidepressants), 'Marsha will never follow you to Israel.'

"We both love Israel very much, and we already had a home in Jerusalem, but I was very rooted in the radiology milieu in the US. One day, the job of heading the radiology department at Rambam became available. I didn't believe they'd accept me – a non-Israeli woman who didn't serve in the army, didn't even speak the language, and didn't go to Hebrew school as a child. My family couldn't afford it. I was very calm on my visit to Rambam, because I didn't there was a real chance that it would happen. But it did happen, and in the end, I really didn't following Jonathan to Israel, because he followed me."

They now live in Zikhron Ya'akov. "We have a wonderful family life. We go on dates and talk, and he's the smartest person I know. He and Avraham are the smartest people I know - people who can make an opportunity out of anything."

"I never had a boss"

"People chase after me to write my biography," says Suhami, now over 80, but as energetic as ever. "To put in one word, I'm a maverick - a person who never had a boss.

"There was only one - my doctorate advisor, and I eventually also told him that he couldn't sign my doctorate, because he didn't do anything there. It was completely mine.

"I always wanted to do everything differently as soon as I first learned how to do it the regular way. I delved into innumerable subjects. Everything interests me." The doctorate in question was on nuclear forces. "My advisor sent me to look for nuclear forces using his methods, and I immediately saw that it was impossible. The doctoral student next to me was doing research in something they discovered only now, 40 years later, so how could they give someone something like that for a doctorate? But I did my best. I wrote, added information to the field, and collected five or six people around me who I thought were as good as I was.

"I got an offer to continue at the university, but then Uzia Galil came along and asked me what I would do in the US."

Galil and Dan Tolkovsky from Discount Investments gave Suhami $250,000, which was a lot of money then and he founded Elscint. He carried on working one day a week at the university.

At first the company dealt with nuclear imaging for industry until Suhami read an article and understood that these images could be used for the body such as CTs. But the money had run out.

"They brought me someone wanting to invest in Israel but he got agitated and said Suhami wants to do everything and he must tell me what he wants to focus on.

Suhami refused and carried on looking for another investor. He found investment banker Fred Adler, who agreed to raise capital if the company had customers. The company found customers for a device that had not yet been completed, and managed to raise $10 million on Nasdaq. “The financing round was based on our promise that we’d make the device, but then came the Yom Kippur War. It was all right; we had money.”

The company developed nuclear cameras, CT scanners, and MRI mammography devices. Each device was the first of its kind, and they completed successfully with the market leaders. “The major companies had not yet really entered the field then, so they waited to see what was happening.

”All this led to a lot of expenses, and at a certain point, the company lost a lot of money, I had a dispute with the board of directors, so I left my position as CEO and went to manage the company in the US.”

They say you escaped an Israel Securities Authority investigation.


”That was never true. Reporters invented it. There was a lawsuit by Elscint shareholders against the company, because at a certain point, we had to reclassify investments we made as a loss, and the losses suddenly grew and the share price fell. The lawsuit was against the company, not against me, and the Securities Authority wasn’t involved in it.”

At the end of the 1990s, the company was acquired by Motti Zisser and sold to three major medical devices companies.

Suhami says, “I was in the US in any case, so I founded a number of companies there with the money I got from my Elscint shares. I founded a computer company, another in the telephones field, and another for hearing aids. Each one was in a completely different field - I always did it that way.

”I was also in France for three years to study things I didn’t know, for example economics. I always argued about economics, until a professor economics got hold of me once and told me, ‘Maybe you should study economics instead of arguing.’ He was right. I bought 50 books and learned by myself.” Suhami wrote two books at that time: one about management and one about economics.

What brought you back to Israel?


My children and grandchildren. I’d already seen most of the beautiful places in the world, and it was time to return and address pressing problems. My new imaging technologies are suitable not only for cancer, but also for a range of imaging applications. You can see signals in the brain in real time. They told me, ‘If it works, you might finally get a Nobel Prize’.”

How does it work?

”We broadcast many electromagnetic waves from different angles, and they are returned differently by different types of tissue.”

Javitt: ”Mammography has existed for many years, and it’s about time to move forward to something new. In recent years, 3D mammography has been invented, but it’s still essentially mammography: the same radiation, with exactly the same problems.

”Mammography is controversial now, specifically in the 40-49 age bracket, and one out of every six women with breast cancer is in this age bracket. Ultrasound is also not sensitive enough, while MRI is expensive, and the effect of the contrast medium is also unclear. Women with dense breast tissue are at high risk of getting the disease, and it’s especially hard to diagnose it with them. Even if you use two diagnostic methods on top of each other today, you miss 30-50% of the cancer cases.”

Israeli is in eighth place in the OECD in frequency of breast cancer, due to both the relatively high frequency of mutations in the BRCA gene, which cause breast cancer, and also for other reasons.

”Very safe radiation”


Suhami: ”Radiation from our device is very safe. It’s the same radiation as from a cellular device, which has been examined for years to see if daily use for hours is hazardous. As of now, they haven’t found a risk, other than people who don’t listen to each other. We use this radiation for a fraction of a second, compared with the ionizing radiation in mammography, which is known to be hazardous.”

Javitt: ”What excites me is that this technology is very accurate on the one hand and very quick on the other. In imaging, we usually sacrifice either rapidity or accuracy.”

Several weeks ago, Suhami presented Javitt with the first prototype. Javitt: “If everything goes as planned, the machine is expected to also tell us the type of tumor – whether it is malignant or benign. That can eliminate the need for a biopsy.

”Because the test is not hazardous and there is no radiation, it can be repeated frequently in order to see whether the tumor changes. A lot can be learned without a physical operation. At the beginning, we’ll try to do exactly the same diagnosis as devices without radiation, and then we’ll try to be better.”


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