Eighteen years ago my mum passed away from melanoma, a very serious form of skin cancer. I often think of her when I’m sitting in my family’s shaky sukkah. It’s an annual reminder of just how fragile life is.
The past two years have certainly demonstrated the uncertainty of our futures, and how little we are really in control.
The third of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – the 17 biggest challenges facing our world today – focuses on good health and wellbeing. The global aim is to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all, at all ages.”
Health systems under pressure
With health workers already in short supply in many regions of the world, health systems have been stretched to their limits by the pandemic. In addition, we still face the continued pressures from many other ailments and diseases.
Cancer, for instance, is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for nearly 10 million deaths in 2020. And it is estimated that there are approximately 44 million people worldwide living with Alzheimer’s disease or a related form of dementia.
So what is Israel doing to help?
In the field of healthcare, Israel is taking significant action to find the drugs and preventative treatments, to help us live as long lives as possible.
Let’s just take a look at Tel Aviv University (TAU) as one example. Over the past few months alone, they have made numerous announcements about breakthroughs in their scientific research.
Using oxygen to beat Alzheimer’s
One team of investigators has succeeded in restoring brain trauma by hyperbaric oxygen therapy (or HBOT). A characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease is the build-up of plaque on the brain. However, in a peer-reviewed study, the researchers conclude that by using oxygen therapy in animal trials, they have been able to reduce the plaque present.
They say that this is the first time in the scientific world that nondrug therapy has been proven effective in preventing the core biological processes responsible for the development of Alzheimer’s disease. This provides incredible hope, not just for treating, but also potentially for preventing Alzheimer’s.
The deadliest form of brain cancer
Another team has been researching glioblastoma, which is the most common form of malignant brain tumor – it accounts for 47.7% of all cases. It’s also the most aggressive and deadliest type of brain cancer. This team developed the first 3D-bioprinting of an “active and viable” brain tumor.
As opposed to 2D models, this scientific breakthrough means that scientists can see the complete physiological characteristics of the tumor, offering a strong and fast prediction of the most suitable treatment for a specific patient. The 3D model could potentially be used to replace animal models and cell cultures to discover and develop new drugs, and even personalized therapy.
Earlier diagnosis, earlier treatment
TAU researchers have also developed a new technology that is expected to revolutionize the field of skin cancer diagnosis. For the first time, optical technology will make possible an automatic and immediate melanoma diagnosis. Based on special optical fibers, this innovative technology can distinguish between a benign lesion on the skin and a malignant one, using a non-invasive, immediate and automatic process. The technology can also distinguish between types of skin cancer, such as melanoma, which is life-threatening, and malignancies that are not as dangerous.
By enabling accurate and earlier diagnosis, this technology has the potential to save many lives.
“Melanoma is a life-threatening cancer, so it is very important to diagnose it early on, when it is still superficial,” says Prof. Abraham Katzir of TAU’s Raymond and Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences. “The innovative system will enable every dermatologist to determine the character of a suspicious lesion automatically, and particularly if it is melanoma. This system has the potential to cause a dramatic change in the field of diagnosing and treating skin cancer, and perhaps other types of cancer as well.”
Healing the world…
Tikkun olam, or healing the world, is a central part of many people’s practice of Judaism. Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, is similarly sharing its knowledge, technology and innovations with others. Only one year since the signing of the Abraham Accords with the UAE, for example, Israeli research and medical centers have already signed cooperation agreements with their Emirati counterparts, and this is expected to expand in the coming year.
It may be too late for my mum, but the incredible work being done at TAU and across Israel inspires hope for the future.
The writer is a TV news presenter and Middle East correspondent for India’s WION (World Is One). The author of Tikkun Olam: Israel vs COVID-19, she has helped numerous multinationals report on their contributions to tackling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal.
The views expressed are hers alone.