Good News Friday

The weeks seem to fly by more quickly than ever as the year draws to a close and it’s time for my last Good News Friday of 2018.

This week’s theme is going to be “When Israel is given lemons, she makes lemonade”. Our crazy wonderful little country is a master at turning adversity to advantage.

My first example is a researcher who developed a new device for early detection of melanoma after his mother was diagnosed with the deadly disease:

Ofir Aharon was in the last year of his PhD studies in electro-optics when his mother was diagnosed with melanoma.

Ofir Aharon, developer of the Blue Sky melanoma-detection device

Learning all he could about this deadly form of skin cancer, Aharon came to the conclusion that more than half of malignant melanoma lesions (usually, moles) fail to be diagnosed in the first two years after they appear – at a stage when treatment could be lifesaving.

“Physicians say 50 percent of skin cancer starts out ‘innocent’ and then becomes cancer, but pathologists familiar with tissue structure say 95% of lesions that look innocent already started as cancer. I wondered why there was no tool that could show the early deterioration of lesions much before they became pigmented,” Aharon tells ISRAEL21c.

“I saw a vacuum here. I knew that something is happening underneath the skin if it’s becoming cancer.”

Aharon talked to dermatology and electro-optics experts about his idea for scanning subdermal skin lesions from different optical fields and using algorithms to extract the differences between the images in order to quantify slight distortions.

“My friends said, ‘If you want to do a mitzvah for your mother, take it to the whole world.’ And then I got into business,” Aharon recalls.

n 2015, he left his job as a researcher at KLA-Tencor to give his full attention to developing the scanner and the algorithms through his startup, Scade Medical, in a home lab tested by the Israeli Chief Scientist and the Singapore Israel Industrial R&D Foundation (SIIRD).

The startup’s patented prototype scanner, BlueSky, is based on DOSI (differential optical spectro-polarimetric imaging) technology that Aharon invented. He says it provides real-time data not otherwise available to dermatologists.

Seven lives saved in clinical trials

In preliminary clinical studies at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheva, DOSI technology achieved a 100 percent detection rate in 77 skin lesions. A proof-of-concept (POC) study of 139 lesions, carried out in five clinics in Jerusalem, Rome and Texas, showed nearly 92% specificity and 100% sensitivity.

In the proof of concept, the new DOSI method in correlation to histology proved about four times better than a simple clinical prognosis using standard dermoscopy, says Aharon.

“We’ve already saved seven lives at the clinics where we tested our device,” he says.

“One 25-year-old woman who agreed to participate in a DOSI scan said she had a mole on her leg for many years. They scanned it with my machine and I saw a distortion.”

Although five dermatologists believed the mole to be harmless, Aharon persuaded them to remove it for closer examination.

“It turned out to be melanoma in an advanced stage. In another few weeks the tissue would have metastasized. Without the DOSI method she would be dead now,” says Aharon.

What a brilliant concept and what great implementation!  Not to mention the lives saved already during clinical trials – that surely must be some kind of record! Kol hakavod to Ofir Aharon for his brilliant idea and for his tenacity in developing and producing his Blue Sky scanner for revealing melanoma. May his research and his product continue to save thousands of lives each year.

My next item is on a related theme (via Suzanne): many children suffering from cancer have suppressed immune systems and cannot attend kindergarten for fear of infection. Now there is a purpose-build sterile kindergarten in Ramat Gan for precisely these children, giving them a normative educational and social experience which they normally would have missed:

From outside, the house in Ramat Gan’s Kfar Azar district — just a few blocks from Tel Hashomer Medical Center — doesn’t look all that unusual. Only the heavy blue security gate and bilingual warning signs at the entrance hint at what’s inside.

The colorful cartoon characters posted around the lobby add a lighter touch to more somber, but essential, decor: There is anti-bacterial paint on all interior walls; double-glazed windows, with shutters between the window panes, keep out dust and dirt; extra-large tiles make the floor easier to clean. There’s also a custom air-conditioning system that maintains air pressure as well as airflow out of the building, strict hygenic protocols for everyone who enters, and protection from the sun in outdoor areas.

Welcome to the Daycare of Dreams (or “Gan HaHalomot” in Hebrew) — a purpose-built kindergarten for tots with cancer, that is billed as “the world’s first sterile educational and recovery center.”

Ayelet Rafalin, the director at Daycare of Dreams, said her 400-square-meter (4,300 square foot) facility is designed to resemble a hospital isolation ward —without a hospital feel to it.

Dorit Zach, a teacher at Larger Than Life’s ‘Daycare of Dreams’ kindergarten in Ramat Gan, leads kids with cancer in a Hebrew-language sing-a-long. (Larry Luxner/ Times of Israel)

“The children who come here are sick, but they have permission from their doctors to visit only this place,” said Rafalin, who has run the facility since it opened in late 2014. “They can be together with other children who also have compromised immune systems. But if they come into contact with sick kids — even though they may have finished their treatment — it could be deadly for them.”

Daycare of Dreams is the flagship project of Larger Than Life, (G’dolim M’HaHaim) a Givatayim-based nonprofit group established in 2000 to assist Israeli children recovering from cancer, regardless of their religion, ethnic background, gender or socioeconomic status. Since then, the organization has helped more than 15,000 children and their families endure the hardships of pediatric cancer.

At the moment, 35 boys and girls from six months to seven years of age attend school here, with the average child staying one to two years. Some come from as far away as Haifa every day.

Most of these kids have lymphomas of various types, while six or seven suffer from leukemia, and another half a dozen have brain tumors. One little girl has uterine cancer, and another small child has diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a rare, aggressive type of brain tumor that usually results in death within nine months of diagnosis.

A boy with cancer plays at Daycare of Dreams, a special facility maintained by the nonprofit group Larger Than Life in Ramat Gan. (Larry Luxner/ Times of Israel)

“Sometimes the parents know there’s no cure. We have five children like this here now,” said Rafalin. At the same time, she said the kindergarten “is a very happy place.”

“We give them the feeling they’re normal,” said Rafalin. “They can study here, learn to read and write, sit with other children. If they’re tired, they can go to sleep.”

Daycare of Dreams has a 22-member staff, with 14 people on site every day. Like Rafalin, who has degrees in education management and special education, all have previously worked with disabled children.

“Before coming here, many of these kids were alone with their parents. They don’t have friends their age. It takes a long time until you see them having fun,” Rafalin said, noting that they’re often embarrassed about their baldness as a result of chemotherapy.

Others have a hard time walking or keeping food down. “You can meet kids here who haven’t spoken for a year, because they were afraid. And now you have to encourage them to make eye contact and speak again,” said Rafalin.

Besides all the architectural considerations, this specially constructed facility also makes sure those who visit wear face masks. Staffers constantly wash their hands, and every evening, a cleaning crew comes and thoroughly scrubs the tables, chairs, toys and anything else the kids may come in contact with — all this to further reduce the risk of contamination.

Building on the success of its Ramat Gan facility, Larger Than Life has already begun construction of a second, even larger sterile kindergarten in Beersheba to serve the entire Negev. Many of the Jewish, Arab and Bedouin kids with cancer in Israel’s southern periphery come from poor families and their parents can’t afford to care for their sick child.

For this reason, the Beersheba project envisions an extended educational center that will serve kids from 7 to 11 years of age, as well as preschool and kindergarten-age children. Located adjacent to Soroka Medical Center, it will include four classrooms for grades 1 through 4, as well as a kindergarten classroom outfitted with a toddlers’ nursery and gymboree play area.

A network of kindergartens

Larger Than Life has already started work on its third and fourth centers — in Haifa and Jerusalem — and eventually hopes to have a network of eight sterile rehabilitation and recovery centers next to every Israeli hospital that has a pediatric cancer ward.

All this costs money, of course. The Beersheba facility alone is estimated to cost $3 million (NIS 10.5 million).

Larger Than Life operates on an annual budget of about $6.8 million (NIS 25 million). Less than half of one percent of that comes from government funds. The rest are all donations — 65% from within Israel, 25% from overseas, and the remaining 10% in-kind goods and services.

This whole concept brings tears to my eyes – both from the suffering of the little children and their families, and from the dedication of the staff and founders of this wonderful kindergarten. Kol hakavod to the Larger than Life Foundation for this fantastic initiative and I wish them huge success in their further projects to open more of such kindergartens around the country. May they go from strength to strength, enjoying success wherever they go.

And now to something completely different. For at least 9 months, since last March, the south of Israel has been under fire – literally – from incendiary devices launched at them by Palestinian terrorists from Gaza, whether by rockets, incendiary kites or balloons. The damage to the area has been staggering: thousands of acres of farmland and nature reserves have been burnt to a cinder and the traumatised residents of the southern communities have had their lives disrupted and their livelihoods destroyed in some cases.

But Israeli farmers are nothing if not inventive, and the wheat farmers of the south have taken the wheat that survived the arson – and made beer from it!

For many months, Israeli farmers living on the border of the Gaza Strip were forced to stand by and watch as their fields went up in flames caused by incendiary balloons and kites sent by Palestinians. Now, together with Alexander Brewery, they are using the wheat that survived their singed harvests into liquid gold

Alexander Beer, produced from wheat from southern Israel that survived the arson attacks from Gaza

“Every farmer looks forward to harvest season. Once a year, we get to see the product of our Sisyphean work. There is no greater letdown than seeing your work erased in an instant,” said Reuven Nir, the field crops manager for Mefalsim and Kfar Aza, kibbutzim in southern Israel, close to the border with Gaza.

Only farmers will understand what it means to have your fields burn down. It’s a tremendous loss. I just stood here on the verge of tears,” said Danny Rahamim, the field crops manager of Kibbutz Nahal Oz. “Everyone is walking around grieving over the loss of their crops.”

Nearly all of Israel’s wheat production, estimated at about 175,000 tons per season, comes from the communities surrounding Gaza.

Most of the communities make their living from agriculture, growing wheat and various other products. About 45,000 dunam (some 11,000 acres) of wheat fields are grown in these communities every year. This year, 7,000 dunam of wheat fields were burned down due to the arson devices sent over from Gaza.

The wheat that survived the flames was harvested, transferred to the brewery, and the result is a brand new beer. Helped by the field owners, the Alexander Brewery used the region’s wheat to produce a special edition of beer, with all profits going to local farmers.

“I cannot be indifferent to the heart-wrenching scenes of burning fields. My heart goes out to the farmers… the Gaza Border Beer is an excellent Israeli beer that showcases the quality wheat grown by our dear friends,” said Ori Sagi, founder of Alexander Brewery.

A huge kol hakavod to Ori Sagi and his Alexander Brewery for helping the farmers of the south recoup their livelihood and rescue what remained of their crops. Kol hakavod too to the brave farmers who did not give up but continued in the face of such huge adversity to produce a winning idea.

I think we can all drink Le’chaim to that!

And on the same theme, here is a beautiful photo essay by Amnon Arad who photographed the south when it was blackened and ruined by fire, and who then photographed it again now as it has begun to recover after the first winter rains. Just look at some of these beautiful photos. You can see the entire post on Facebook.

Photo by Amnon Arad

Photo by Amnon Arad

Nature is incredible! Who could have thought that that blackened countryside could flourish so quickly and so beautifully. We must give thanks to Hashem every day for His wonderful works of creation. And we have to salute the residents and farmers of the south for remaining steadfast and stoic in the face of such terror and war. May they now reap the benefits of their courage and persistence.

And with these inspiring and beautiful pictures to bring hope to our hearts, I wish you all Shabbat Shalom.

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5 Responses to Good News Friday

  1. Pingback: Good News Friday – 24/6 Magazine

  2. Jeff says:

    “Nature is incredible! Who could have thought that that blackened countryside could flourish so quickly and so beautifully?
    The children are also incredible!

  3. very interesting post. great work, keep going

  4. Reality says:

    Oh wow what a wonderful post.Thank You

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