A few years ago at South Africa’s Kruger Park, I watched, fascinated, a fight between two giraffes. A cheeky young pretender was challenging the veteran older male in an effort to become the new alpha male of the herd. A similar ambition, it occurs to me – achieving success- pervades all levels of the animate world.
Another kind of Alpha, the lowest form of radiation in its category of beta, gamma and x-ray – has propelled some Israeli scientists at Tel Aviv University, to venture into pioneering research to gain their ambition: to tackle and conquer cancer – the scourge plaguing humanity since its beginnings.
Alpha rays have to date been commonly used, i.a., in smoke detectors, as a source of fuel, or in the oil industry to give power to some tools.
But in medicine? It took a group of scientists, including Professor Aron Popovtzer, to develop Alpha radiation for its new significant task of serving humanity. Professor Popovtzer is head of the Sharett Oncology Institute at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, where he is in charge of its newly-established Alpha Dart Program.
A graduate of the Hadassah–Hebrew University School of Medicine, Prof. Popovtzer specialized in head and neck cancer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The author of some 95 articles, Prof. Popovtzer is involved in both treatment and research.
“We are now harnessing these Alpha rays to fight cancer, hopefully eventually all kinds of cancer,” says the tall, lean professor, with an obvious air of satisfaction.
Theory was step no.1. Laboratory trials for the neophyte medicine went well. Now came the second stage: human trial studies, a procedure which is currently taking place hourly in Jerusalem and elsewhere.
I had a special interest in delving into details– I was slated to become one of the 56 persons to participate in such a human study about to be launched at Hadassah.
My own tale in this story actually begins in August 2022 at my regular semi-annual skin check-up. It was then that amiable Kupat Cholim Dr. Pollack found the tiny suspect. For months a stubborn little red mark on my face refused to change its appearance.
I had expected in vain to see a scab cover the red “beauty mark”, that device fashionable ladies of a previous century would often plaster on their faces, presumably to lead the eye of the admirer to her other attractions. Not harboring such ambitions, I was eager to get rid of my facial intruder. For this turned out to be not just a harmless red spot…. ….
Examining it with her magic magnifying glass, the good doctor voiced suspicion that this might be a cancerous growth. She sent me to the skin oncology experts at the Sharett Oncology Institute of Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Suspicion confirmed, the pimple was identified as BCC – basal cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer.
Carcinoma, the Greek word for cancer, discovered and named by Hippocrates, “the father of medicine,’’ has been known since the dawn of time. The disease was first documented 2,700 years ago when traced in a 40-50-year-old Scythian king who lived in the steppes of southern Siberia.
Scythian royalty buried, successive generations continued to suffer and to search.
Especially in the 20th century, scientists around the globe have been in constant search for ways to combat cancer.
On hearing my news, I was confronted with three options: 1.surgery- thumbs down, because it would leave the face deformed and in need of reconstruction 2. getting ten successive daily radiation treatments or 3. participating in a
pioneering new method, a clinical study of which was about to be launched at Hadassah. I chose no.3. Why? Because it sounded attractive:
A one-time visit for the procedure, with periodic check-ups. No hospitalization. No harm to neighboring cells. No serious after-effects. News of its successes.
So I volunteered to be part of DART’s second human study in Israel (the first had been successfully concluded at Beilinson Hospital in Petach Tikva.
I was informed by Hannalea Cohen, the delicate-looking project liaison between doctor and patient, that I was accepted to be one of the 56 volunteers of all ages from all walks of life to participate in this second study of its kind.
After I underwent a blood test and a CT scan of the area to be treated, which was photographed from all angles, oncologist surgeon, Dr. Yoram Fleissig took over. He performed the painless procedure, explaining it to the semi-circle of eager young medical students I call “understudies” who had been attentively watching, answering their questions as well as those from the half-aenesthesized patient.
Dr. Fleissig explained that he was making his four minuscule skin penetrations 4 mm apart. Infused with a tiny load of radioactive seeds, these would be aimed at my cancerous cells – and none of their neighbors would be affected – to spread their deathly rays and kill the unwanted culprit. To make sure that during the two weeks these would stay in place to do their work, (and that I would not be entering a beauty contest) , Dr. Fleissig plastered a coat of medical silicone over his deed.
Photo of Dr. Yoram Fleissig
So far, 140 people in five studies have been tested on head and neck tumors, (some of still going on in the United States (Sloan –Kettering) Italy, France, Japan, Israel. The result is an unprecedent percentage of success: 98% – in 8O% the cancer totally disappeared; in18% it was shrunk.
A month after my procedure I was finally able to “catch’’ Uzi Sofer, CEO and chairman of Alpha Tau company who had just come back from a world tour where he met with scientists and heads of companies. I was taken to AlphaTau headquarters located in the Jerusalem’s Har Hotzvim expanding hi-tech quarter.
As I entered the company reception room, I stopped. Where was I?
Did I come into Alice’s Wonderland? Everything seemed to point to it: the subtly-fashioned long maple furniture trying to extend beyond its physical borders, the brightly-lit spaces filled with large multi-colored post-modern abstracts decorating the walls, the silence of contemplation. And all along there were faces of young people rushing to and fro among the many glass screened doors.
Three years ago, I learned, this huge multi-room office of the Alpha Tau Dart organization did not even exist.
And now Uzi Sofer, a personable 53-year-old genius, had created this amazing empire dedicated to combatting the scourge of cancer.
A palpable atmosphere of seriousness, work, purpose and collective partnership pervaded the premises.
Photo of Uzi Sofer
that his or her small part here is a contribution to something big, something important,” says digitaL marketing manager Lauren Maman.
A 100-year-old prominent lawyer in my trial group had emerged from the procedure successfully. And I, too, might become one of the beneficiaries of this newly – won knowledge.
After a few weeks, I was indeed notified that my procedure passed successfully, though the final verdict would come only in two years.
The Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken notice:
two Breakthrough Devices have been awarded to the Dart Program:
1.Designation for Alpha for the treatment of patients with recurrent glioblastoma (GBM).
2.Breakthrough Device Designation for the treatment of skin cancer without curative standard of cure.
GBM is an aggressive malignant brain tumor, with an average 5-year survival rate of less than 10%, and is the most common malignant tumor of the brain or central nervous system. According to the designation, Alpha DaRT is proposed for use in treating recurrent GBM as an adjunct to standard medical therapies or as a stand-alone therapy after standard medical therapies have been exhausted.
FDA’s Breakthrough Device Designation will allow us to expedite our clinical collaborations with leading cancer centers in the U.S. and across the world, and to bring new hope for GBM patients. I am very proud of our team and our collaborators who have worked hard to extend the use of Alpha DaRT to GBM and have already accomplished so many amazing things,” said Alpha Tau CEO Uzi Sofer. “This is fantastic news for Alpha Dart and fantastic news for so many GBM patients around the world.”
And the future? “We are now aiming to get to the inside organs such as the heart, lungs, pancreas. In this effort, we are facing two major challenges 1. How to deliver the medication to the internal organs 2. How to make sure the entire tumor is covered” states Uzi Sofer, adding that an entire new department has been established on his premises to seek solutions to these conundrums.
At the same time, Professor Popovtzer’s Hadassah team is busy looking for the original source of metastasis in existing tumors.
And all are looking forward to receiving soon the final FDA approval.