While South African-Israeli Dr. Talia Golan, supported by the South African Jewish community, makes progress towards a cure for pancreatic cancer, one wonders what will cure the anti-Israel ‘cancer’ gripping South Africa.
By David E. Kaplan, Lay of the Land
While South Africa’s premier university, University of Cape Town, makes the news with its proposed boycott of academic institutions in Israel, alumni of Israeli universities are making far more remarkable news seeking to save, rather than destroy, lives.
The irony is that some of these Israelis who are in the vanguard of groundbreaking medical research are former South Africans.
One such is medical oncologist, Dr. Talia Golan, a graduate of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University (TAU), is the head of Sheba Medical Center’s Pancreatic Cancer Center.
While UCT conducts itself at the southern tip of Africa hardly befitting its historic moniker “The Cape of Good Hope,” Israeli researchers headed by Dr. Talia Golan are offering genuine “Good Hope” for some pancreatic cancer patients. A world-renowned specialist and researcher in the field of pancreatic cancer, Dr. Golan is also the director of Phase I clinical trials unit at Sheba’s Pancreatic Cancer Center.
Having immigrated from Pretoria, South Africa, with her parents Drs. Alfie and Myra Feinberg – prominent physicians in their own right – when she was 13, Dr. Golan is in the front lines of battling pancreatic cancer by striving to find the “magic bullet” that could possibly cure several forms of the disease in the near future.
In 2017, Dr. Golan was already feeling confident. “I believe the changes in the way we treat pancreatic cancer, using new and innovative technologies, will result in the emergence of game-changing drugs in the near future,” she said, adding that “these treatments will target the specific gene mutation that causes the cancer, re-engineer it, and eliminate it as a threat.”
That “near future” may have arrived.
Last week, the Sheba research team headed by Dr. Golan announced that a targeted cancer therapy drug they developed together with two of the world’s largest biopharmaceutical companies, AstraZeneca and Merck & Co. Inc. – known as POLO – offers “potential hope” for patients with a specific kind of pancreatic cancer, as it delays the progression of the disease.
“The POLO trial using the medicine Lynparza offers potential hope for those who suffer from metastatic pancreatic cancer and have a BRCA mutation,” explains Dr. Golan. “This treatment also exemplifies the advent of ‘precision medicine’ based on a specific genetic biomarker, BRCA 1 & 2.”
Pancreatic cancer is the 12th most common cancer worldwide, with 458,918 reported new cases in 2018 alone. It is the fourth leading cause of cancer death, and fewer than 3% of patients with metastatic disease survive more than five years after diagnosis. It is difficult to diagnose pancreatic cancer early, as often there are no symptoms until it is too late. Around 80% of patients are diagnosed at the metastatic stage.
So, what are BRCA Mutations?
‘A Tremendous, Really Phenomenal Response’
As explained in the research, “BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human genes that produce proteins responsible for repairing damaged DNA and play an important role in maintaining the genetic stability of cells. When either of these genes is mutated, or altered, such that its protein product either is not made or does not function correctly, DNA damage may not be repaired properly, and cells become unstable. As a result, cells are more likely to develop additional genetic alterations that can lead to cancer. A significant number of Ashkenazi Jews around the world are carriers of the BRCA 1 & 2 genes.”
The POLO study was held with 154 patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer who carried the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genetic mutations.
“When we saw the results were positive, it was an exceptional, phenomenal moment,” said Golan in an interview. “For the field it is a huge thing.”
She added that this is the first Phase 3 biomarker study that is positive in pancreatic cancer and the drug “provides tremendous hope for patients” with the advanced stage of the cancer. “This drug has shown efficacy and a tremendous really phenomenal response in this patient population,” she said.
Light Unto The Nations
At the Chanukah launch last December of the South African Friends of Sheba Medical Center at Cape Town’s contemporary art gallery, “WHATIFTHEWORLD”, Dr Talia Golan said:
“I’m extremely proud of my Jewish South African roots. Africa is in my soul, and it’s an honour to represent Sheba Medical Center, where we work to bring cutting edge care to patients, from IDF soldiers to people of all walks of life in Israel and around the world.”
Yoel Har-Even, Sheba Medical Centre’s Chief of Staff, added:
“We are looking forward to strengthening the relationship between the South African community and Sheba Medical Center in Israel. Our goals include formulating programs that will allow South African students from different spheres of the medical sector to intern and to specialize at Sheba Medical Center, assist disadvantaged communities in South Africa and the rest of the African continent by building bridges with us and ongoing support for Sheba’s highest standards of medicine, research, innovation and technology, transforming medicine in Israel and worldwide.”
Bringing Light to the African Continent
Naomi Hadar, executive director of the South African Friends of Sheba Medical Center, who spent the past 17 years as one of the most influential Jewish organizational community leaders in South Africa (IUA-UCF), said:
“It is a privilege to be a part of Sheba’s innovative medical centre, which provides global outreach to communities around the world, including the South African community. As our event in Cape Town took place during Chanukah, we hope to bring light to the South African Jewish community and the African continent as a whole. I am looking forward to helping Sheba make a difference in many people’s lives.”
While Dr. Golan, who left Pretoria at the age of 13, leads the battle to find a cure for pancreatic cancer, supported by the Jewish community in South Africa, one wonders what will cure the ‘cancer’ gripping South Africa’s political leadership that seeks to alienate the country – diplomatically and academically – from Israel.
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