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. People desperately want a cure to be discovered, whether they're cancer patients themselves, their loved ones and caregivers, or those worried they’ll be among the 50% (of men, for women it’s a one-in-three 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 THC-rich 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.
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