Foreign cancer specialists are criticizing claims by a team of Israeli researchers who say they have developed a concept that will pave the way to a cure for cancer, with one US expert dismissing it as likely “another in a long line of spurious, irresponsible and ultimately cruel false promises for cancer patients.”
The CEO of the company behind the research told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that it has not published its research in medical journals, as is the norm, because it “can’t afford” to do so, but that the results of its pre-clinical trials have been “very good.” Several Israeli experts contacted by The Times of Israel declined to comment on the claim, some precisely because they were not familiar with the research.
“We are working on a complete cure for cancer,” said Ilan Morad, the CEO and founder of the Nes Ziona-based startup Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies Ltd. (AEBi), in an interview with The Times of Israel on Tuesday, echoing claims the firm made to the Jerusalem Post earlier this week. “We still have a long way to go, but in the end we believe we will have a cure for all kinds of cancer patients and with very few side effects.”
Morad added that “in a year’s time or so” the firm could start treating patients as part of clinical trials it hopes to begin if it raises the funds. The family of molecules it has developed, which are at the core of its ostensible path to a care, have been tested in Israeli pre-clinical trials on human cancer cells in a lab and on mice, Morad said, and found effective in targeting common cancers like lung cancer, colon cancer and head and neck cancers.
Several hospitals and experts in Israel refused to comment on the claims, some noting that they had no direct information on the research. Other experts, overseas, sounded stark warnings about the researchers’ claims.
Dr. Leonard Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the national office of the American Cancer Society, noted on Tuesday that while the Israeli scientists had worked “with an interesting approach to interfering with the ability of cancer cells to function,” their research has “apparently not been published in the scientific literature where it would be subject to review, support and/or criticism from knowledgeable peers.”
“We all have hope that a cure for cancer can be found and found quickly. It is certainly possible this approach may be work,” he wrote in a blog post entitled “A cure for cancer? Not so fast.”
“However, as experience has taught us so many times, the gap from a successful mouse experiment to effective, beneficial application of exciting laboratory concepts to helping cancer patients at the bedside is in fact a long and treacherous journey, filled with unforeseen and unanticipated obstacles.”
“It will likely take some time to prove the benefit of this new approach to the treatment of cancer. And unfortunately–based on other similar claims of breakthrough technologies for the treatment of cancer–the odds are that it won’t be successful.”
Added Lichtenfeld: “We hope that this approach also bears fruit and is successful. At the same time, we must always offer a note of caution that the process to get this treatment from mouse to man is not always a simple and uncomplicated journey.”
Dr. Ben Neel, director of Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Health, told The New York Post that “cancer is multiple diseases, and it is highly unlikely that this company has found a ‘cure’ for cancer any more than there is a single cure for infections.”
He said that “more likely, this claim is yet another in a long line of spurious, irresponsible and ultimately cruel false promises for cancer patients.”
Publish or… research?
Morad said the team at AEBi chooses to use its scant funds to do more research rather than publishing its research in medical journals
The firm wants to focus on “advancing the research and developing more targeting peptides. It takes a lot of work and we are a small company,” he told The Times of Israel. “We can’t afford it. Publishing an article takes a lot of effort and a lot of funds, and this we can’t afford.
He added: “If we were a big company with a lot of funds, that would be the first thing we would do. If I have $100,000 what do I spend it on?” he asked. “Advancing the research and finding more and more targeting peptides, or doing many experiments to write an article? What would you do, if you had to choose?”
In the conventional process of development, medical researchers who make a discovery gather their material and submit a paper on it to legitimate medical journals in the hope that the journals’ editorial committees will validate their findings and publish the discovery. The greater the prestige of the publication, the greater the apparent value of the discovery. Researchers do not have to pay for legitimate medical journals to publish their findings.
An ‘octopus’ armed with peptides
The drug the firm hopes to develop “will be a personalized medication that will be tailored to the specific cancers of each patient,” Morad said. “Each person will get the drug for their specific cancer.”
The treatment, which the firm calls the MuTaTo (Multi-Target Toxin), is a family of molecules armed with peptides that have the ability to interact with a wide variety of proteins expressed by the cancer cells. Rather than just targeting one kind of protein, the molecules have the ability to target a number of proteins at the same time, said Morad. “We create a multiple attack on cancer,” he said.
“Think of the arms of an octopus,” he elaborated. “The octopus in this case is the molecule, and at the end of each arm there are peptides that interact with the proteins and inhibit their action.” This interaction allows “toxic peptides” attached to many arms of the octopus to penetrate the cancer cell and destroy it from within.
The results of the pre-clinical trials, Morad said, were “very good,” showing that the molecules have the ability to kill cancer cells, targeting only them and not other healthy cells. “The effect is specific to the cancer cells, leaving out other non-cancer cells, so the side effects will be much less. It will have side effects at the level of ibuprofen or a common aspirin.”
The company is now in the process of patenting the concept, he said. Funding to date has come from private investors.
Morad founded AEBi in 2000, having previously worked as a researcher at Peptor Ltd., a Rehovot-based bio-pharmaceutical firm that in 2003 got the green light for a merger with German biopharmaceutical firm DeveloGen. Other members of the team include Dan Aridor, the chairman of the board, who majored in finance at the Columbia Business School, according to the company website.
The third member mentioned on the website is Hanan Itzhaki, the chief operational officer of the firm. Itzhaki has been at the firm since 2002, having formerly worked at Rehovot-based InSight Pharmaceutical Ltd. He held a postdoctoral position at the horticultural department at Purdue University in Indiana and has a PhD from the faculty of agriculture of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Morad said that the team now aims to advance its research and get to clinical trials as fast as possible.
The US Food & Drug Administration sets out procedures for the development and process of drugs as follows: “Before a drug can be tested in people, the drug company or sponsor performs laboratory and animal tests to discover how the drug works and whether it’s likely to be safe and work well in humans. Next, a series of tests in people is begun to determine whether the drug is safe when used to treat a disease and whether it provides a real health benefit.”