After tackling space exploration, 34-year-old Yonatan Winetraub is looking to make his mark on the world of cancer treatments.
Winetraub is one of the co-founders of SpaceIL, the Israeli organization that attempted to land the spaceship Beresheet on the Moon in 2019.
On Tuesday, the US National Institutes of Health awarded him its prestigious Early Independence Prize to research a device that would be able to diagnose skin tumors without the need for invasive biopsies.
“Right now, if a lesion on a person’s skin is believed to be cancer, the most common way to confirm the diagnosis is using an invasive biopsy procedure in which the doctor cuts the piece of skin out with a knife and puts it under a microscope,” Winetraub said. “The clinician looks at the sample and makes the diagnosis with a little bit of guesswork. The process is invasive, painful and leaves ugly scars.”
Winetraub’s solution, in contrast, would rely on optical imaging to generate a “virtual biopsy.”
“The idea is very similar to that of an ultrasound, but instead of sounds, we use light to generate very high-resolution images that can see single cells inside the body up to one millimeter into the tissue,” he said. “We use machine-learning technologies to compare these images to others for diagnosis, so we can achieve a higher level of accuracy as well.”
The technology could also be used to diagnose brain tumors in a similar way, without unnecessarily cutting out brain tissue, Winetraub said.
Beyond its clinical benefits, the technique can also be used for research into tumor development and tumor responses to treatment by providing in-vivo images of healthy and tumorous tissue microstructures changing over time, allowing physicians to watch tumor growth.
Born in Israel, Winetraub has spent the past six years completing his PhD in biophysics at the Stanford University School of Medicine, with research focused on utilizing optical coherence tomography (OCT) and machine learning to create virtual histology tools to image cancer at a single-cell resolution.
Recognizing the potential impact of his research, Stanford nominated Winetraub for the NIH’s Early Independence Prize, an exclusive grant with hundreds of nominees each year. Winetraub was selected as one of 10 winners and will receive about $250,000 per year for five years to set up a lab team and conduct the research that could move the project from idea toward commercialization.
In essence, the prize allows Winetraub to skip the postdoctoral phase of his science career and jump into the role of a senior academic getting significant funding to pursue a groundbreaking area of medicine.
That’s a role he has worked hard to earn. Winetraub studied electrical engineering and computational neuroscience at Tel Aviv University and has published many academic papers in the subjects of neuroscience and cancer imaging.
Winetraub has also been listed in Forbes’s Israel’s 30 under 30 and Globes’s Israel’s 40 under 40, although those rankings focused more on his side project.
The idea for SpaceIL was conceived when Winetraub, Yariv Bash and Kfir Damari were out drinking, and someone came up with an idea to send a spaceship to the Moon. The team became obsessed with the idea, and when Google offered a $20 million prize to the first group that could land a vessel on the Moon and send a video back to Earth, they quickly became one of the favorites to win.
SpaceIL missed Google’s deadline, but after raising $100m. in donations, it succeeded in launching its Beresheet spacecraft into outer space in April 2019. Unfortunately, a glitch caused the ship to crash just seconds before it was scheduled to touch down on the Moon. But the project was hailed as a massive success, and SpaceIL has plans to make a second attempt in 2024.
For now, Winetraub’s focus is on bringing his imaging system from idea to reality.
“Obviously, it will take many years of research and testing before this technology is ready to be used commercially,” he said. “This grant will help us along the path.”