The genuine promise of Israeli cancer research

Cancer is a huge, global public-health problem.

February 14, 2019 23:01
2 minute read.
Cancer cells [illustrative]

Cancer cells [illustrative]. (photo credit: PIXABAY)


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Being told that your child has cancer, or that you have cancer, is one of the most terrifying of life events. I know. I have been a physician taking care of children with cancer for over 40 years.

That is why I believe there can be no crueler or more outrageous act than falsely giving hope to millions of cancer patients and their families around the world. Yet that is precisely what The Jerusalem Post and others allowed to happen when they published a story titled, “A cure for cancer? Israeli scientists may have found one.”

The report quoted the CEO of a small Israeli company that has marketed no products, yet claimed, “We believe we will offer in a year’s time a complete cure for cancer... effective from day one, will last a duration of a few weeks and will have no or minimal side-effects at a much lower cost than most other treatments on the market.” 

A modicum of investigation would have revealed that there can be no sensible basis for such an assertion. Not unexpectedly, there was a swift and unequivocal response from a responsible scientific community that understands the biology of cancer, and the reality that therapeutic interventions cannot be developed within a year.

Cancer is a huge, global public-health problem. Without warning, it strikes people of all socioeconomic strata, all ages, and all races. For almost half of cancer patients, currently available treatments eventually fail, and despite valiant attempts at intervention, patients die prematurely – and they die because of their cancer. Though the rate of cancer deaths for Jews in Israel is among the lowest in the world – 177 deaths for every 100,000 people – cancer kills more Jews in Israel than any other disease. 

The answer to cancer is research, but the development of successful new cancer therapies is challenging, painstaking work. Across Israel, brilliant scientists are at work in academia, government, and companies to develop curative therapies. While the actual cost of drug development is debated, no one doubts that the development of a new therapy costs many hundreds of millions of dollars – and the work of discovery and development and seeking government approval requires many years.

That said, the future of cancer research has never looked more promising – particularly in Israel. Israel’s scientists are bringing to the cancer fight the same breathtaking innovation, urgency, breakthrough thinking, tireless determination, and adroit use of resources that have been the hallmark of Israeli science and technology for the last 70 years, and have led to such transformative discoveries as the cellular pathways and molecules which are targeted for the treatment of multiple myeloma, chronic myelogenous leukemia and other life-threatening tumors. More recently, Israeli scientists have made major contributions to the development of novel approaches to immunotherapy for the treatment of leukemia and other cancers.

Having evaluated cancer research proposals from across the State of Israel for more than 10 years, I have a deep and abiding belief that Israeli cancer research is truly world-class, and that this tiny nation is making a critical and disproportionate contribution to the fight against this scourge of humankind. Claims of a Holy Grail cruelly mislead cancer patients, and undermine support for cancer research, their only hope for more effective treatments. 

The writer is national executive director of the Israel Cancer Research Fund, and emeritus Preston and Virginia Kelsey Distinguished Chair in Cancer at Dartmouth Medical School. 

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