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It’s in the Genes

Aharon Granevich-Granot

Could a breakthrough in RNA research and new discoveries about epigenetics herald a cure for some cancers that until now have defeated the medical establishment? Sixty years after the discover of DNA in April 1953, Professor Gidi Rechavi hopes his newest clinical trial will shed even more light on the mysteries of tumor biology

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

pharmecueticalYou won’t find any white coats at the Cancer Research Center of Sheba Medical Center inRamat Gan. In his previous position as the head of the pediatric hematology department, Professor Gideon Rechavi — who is now the head of theCancerResearchCenter— also instructed his doctors to remove the standard white coats. “The ward is frightening enough for children as it is; the white coats are even more frightening and create a barrier between the patient and the doctor,” he explains. “I wanted to develop more of a personal relationship between the child and the doctor treating him, so I instructed them to come in their regular clothes.”

The trial Professor Rechavi is currently overseeing is aimed at improving treatment of patients with high-grade gliomas, the most frequent type of primary brain tumor in adults. These tumors are extremely aggressive, and despite standard treatments, they always recur. Dr. Rechavi has been recruiting patients whose tumors have returned and he combines several cutting-edge therapies in the hope of both effectively treating the recurring tumors and gaining advanced knowledge of tumor biology.

Many scientist and patients are pinning their hopes on Professor Rechavi. Last April he shook up the industry with results of a study he published in Nature magazine, describing an advanced method of identifying and mapping out chemical changes in encoded RNA molecules — a breakthrough he hopes will open doors in healing now-untreatable cancers.

While there may not be any white coats in his lab, there is plenty of advanced technology. “Look at the irony,” Professor Rechavi remarks during a tour of the laboratories, pointing to an elaborate contraption. “This machine, which cost the hospital $4 million, is outdated. It takes two and a half weeks to decipher a sample of a human genome.”

In another corner of the room stands a second futuristic-looking machine, which Professor Rechavi lauds as a revolutionary piece of equipment. “This machine, which cost the hospital just $350,000, does the same thing within two and a half hours.

“This is where they put the DNA cells, which are taken from a microscopic amount of transparent liquid not even visible to the human eye,” the professor says, showing off the new tools of his craft. “And this is where the computerized analysis begins; we enter information into the computer, and it uses the information to analyze the cells. Scientists use four letters to refer to the components of the DNA in our bodies: AGCT. The computer analyzes the sequence of components that make up the microscopic drop. Each component is marked with its own letter, and the sequence creates a sort of medical ‘text’ that enables the doctors to try to understand what is taking place within the patient’s body.”

Professor Rechavi walks with us past the various lab rooms, obviously taking pride in his dedicated workers. I comment knowingly, “They must be pleased at the thought that they are partners in a revolutionary breakthrough in healing that incurable disease.”

Professor Rechavi is a bit more cautious in his words. “Well, I wouldn’t call it a revolution, but we have certainly made a few dents.”

 

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