Finding a cure
Israel’s reputation as a tech pioneer extends far beyond wireless technology and computer chips to the biomedical field. While some of the most ingenious treatments are being developed at Israeli universities, others are being launched by private start-up companies.
Here is a sampling of the many advances in the industry — some in the pipeline, others already on the market.
Cervical cancer can be cured if it is caught early, but that rarely occurs in the developing world, resulting in 250,000 cervical cancer deaths a year worldwide. MobileOCT, a Tel Aviv start-up launched in October 2012, has developed a scope that can be attached to a smart phone, a digital camera or an endoscope to capture the data required to make a diagnosis. The device absorbs the light reflected from cervical tissue and turns it into a high-resolution image that is then analyzed by an algorithm developed by MobileOCT.
According to Ariel Beery, the company’s co-founder, 2 billion women lack access to cervical cancer screening. In December, Beery and MobileOCT won the $100,000 first prize in the International Startup Festival’s Elevator World Tour, a competition for top startups. Now in the testing phase, the prototype is expected to go live in 2015.
Many patients with sleep apnea, characterized by brief interruptions in breathing during sleep, live with this potentially fatal condition because the pressure masks their physicians prescribe, which are meant to keep oxygen flowing, are just too uncomfortable. Discover Medical Devices has created SomnuSeal, an adjustable mask it describes as nonintrusive and “much more comfortable” because it doesn’t come into contact with any sensitive oral or facial structures.
The mask uses continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) to keep the airways open. This is the same treatment used for preterm babies whose lungs haven’t fully developed, according to the National Institutes of Health. Discover Medical, which is marketing the product in Europe, hopes to enter the U.S. market as well.
People with type-2 diabetes who depend on insulin injections may have an alternative in the foreseeable future. Jerusalem-based Oramed Pharmaceuticals has developed an oral insulin capsule intended to take the place of daily injections. The capsule is in Phase II clinical trials.
“Going to market is a few years downstream,” said the company’s COO, Josh Hexter, referring to the long clinical trial process required before any medication is approved.
The company believes the capsule will be most beneficial in the early stages of type-2 diabetes, when it can still slow the rate of degeneration of the disease by providing additional insulin to the body before the pancreas can no longer produce any insulin. Diabetes is a metabolic disorder in which a person has high blood sugar, either from the body not producing enough insulin (type 1) or because the cells have developed a resistance to the body’s own insulin (type 2).
Professor Zeev Zalevsky at Bar-Ilan University has developed a bionic contact lens that, he believes, will eventually give sight to people who were born blind. The product utilizes a small camera, held in the hand or worn on glasses, that transmits information to a special contact lens. Electrodes transmit signals of the image, which can be described as “electronic Braille,” which are in turn felt by the retina.
“It’s like reading Braille, not with your fingertips but with your eyes,” Zalevsky explained in an online university newsletter. “We can encode an image with many more points than the Braille system and use these to stimulate the surface of the cornea.”
Zalevsky’s team is conducting feasibility studies on people with normal sight as a prelude to seeking approval for clinical trials.
When President Barak Obama visited Israel last year, the government invited him to see some of the country’s most impressive tech inventions. The ReWalk exoskeleton was one of them.
Awaiting FDA approval in the U.S., the exoskeleton created by Argo Medical Technologies, southeast of Haifa, enables paraplegics to sit up, walk and climb stairs. Used in rehabilitation hospitals in Israel, the U.S. and Europe, ReWalk is also available for private use in Europe.
Powered by batteries, the exoskelton’s motorized legs are controlled by portable computers and motion sensors. The developers are currently examining whether ReWalk increases patients’ bone density and improves bodily functions. Featured on the TV show “Glee,” the product was named one of the “25 Best Inventions of the Year” for 2013 by TIME magazine.
Na-Nose, which was developed by a team of scientists at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, is a system that tests and detects lung cancer from exhaled breath with a high rate of accuracy — it is able to differentiate between different types of cancer up to 95 percent of the time.
The company’s goal is to detect early stages of cancer in a noninvasive way. A year ago, the scientists teamed up with the Boston-based company Alpha Szenszor, which manufacturers nanotube sensing equipment, to conduct more testing and seek FDA approval within five years.
Na-Nose analyzes the more than 1,000 different gases that are contained in a person’s breath and identifies those that raise red flags. The gases bind with nanomaterials and the results are analyzed. The developers are seeking ways to apply the technology to the detection of multiple sclerosis, kidney disease and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as other cancers.
OrCam, a device that reads text from newspapers, road signs, menus, food labels and more, helps the visually impaired navigate the world. The product, made by a Jerusalem-based manufacturer of the same name, consists of a tiny camera that attaches to a pair of eyeglasses. A cable links it to a pocket-sized computer, which converts the words into speech when the user points to an object.
Available only in the U.S. and in English — although it is currently sold out, according to its manufacturer — the manufacturers are planning to distribute the device more widely and in different languages.