When the VC arms of Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson made their first investment in Novocure - back in 2009 - the company's technology made many Israelis skeptical. On the one hand, treating cancer with electric fields sounds like a joke; on the other hand, the leading players in the pharmaceutical and medical devices sphere believed the results of Novocure's trials.
As it turns out, the technology became one of the most significant Israeli contributions to global advances in recent years.
Novocure, which offers a treatment for brain tumors that uses electrodes, has proven its approach better than the current method in its clinical trials. Two of the first ten trial participants -- conducted eight years ago -- are still alive: the average life expectancy for the disease was six months.
The treatment was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), though initially it was only allowed to cautiously sell its product to cancer patients with glioblastoma after they had exhausted all other treatment options. Today, patients are authorized to use its treatment from the get-go, alongside medication.
Recently, one of the company's trials was stopped because it was too successful. The FDA determined it would be unfair to keep participants in the control group when the efficacy of the treatment was evident.
"Why not search for a cure for cancer?"
The person behind the technology at Novocure is 78-year-old Professor Yoram Palti, who came up with the idea during his retirement. In order to develop the treatment, he dug back into ideas and discoveries from his doctorate days -- which had been collecting dust for 30 years.
"My friends would sometimes ask me: 'Why not search for a cure for cancer?' So I did," he says.
He decided to integrate electric fields with living tissue. "I always had a hard time picking between medicine and engineering. When I was deciding between studying engineering at the Technion or medicine in Jerusalem, the decision came down to my family living in Jerusalem -- and not having the money to study away from home. But it wasn't easy for me to forget my dual interests and in my doctorate I combined medicine with physics. I was essentially the first MD PhD in the country, through a program I made on my own, before we had the term 'biomedical engineering.'"
Novocure emerged as an idea in 1992, though it was founded in 2000. "I had a notion about how to hit some cells and not others. I started making calculations and models in my basement and saw it could work."
The first investment -- $300,000 -- was raised from a friend: Lennart Perlhagen, previously a senior executive at European pharma firms Pharmitalia and Meda AB.
"After many years he confessed to me that he thought nothing would come of it: 'But you were so nice,'" says Palti. Today Perlhagen is a director at Novocure and holds shares worth $119 million, having held on to his investments over the years. He also invests in all of Palti's other initiatives.
"His investment made the firm," says Palti today, "But there were also hard days. There were months when I paid salaries out of my own pocket though I was just on a Technion pension."
Palti founded the firm with a team of three. "Two still work here, 25 years later. The third is at the Weitzmann Institute of Science. Our employees receive options," he says. Palti, who serves as VP of Technology at the firm, holds shares worth $200 million.
The company currently employs more than 250 people, with 50 at the Haifa R&D center and most of the rest in the US. "We are also expanding to Europe, Japan, and South Korea."
Where do you go from here?
"Trials in other tumors will have results starting this year, and I believe we will change the way we treat cancer. There are other growths that are more sensitive to our approach than brain cancer. A pilot of 40 lung cancer patients had exciting results in a treatment where the electrodes are only worn 12 hours a day and not 24."
Palti is working on a secretive new project that may help fight diabetes. "We know that after people have gastric bypass, their diabetes improves quickly even before they lose weight; but no one knows why," he says, "I have a few ideas, very different than the conventional ones. The other issue I'm working on is the preservation of transplant organ, which as of now cannot be preserved by freezing."
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on April 27, 2016
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