Israeli Space Organization Cofounder Wins Prestigious Award to Improve Cancer Detection

Yonatan Winetraub shifted his focus from outer space to the human body. At Stanford University, he is working on detecting cancer without biopsies.

By Abigail Klein Leichman, ISRAEL21c

Over drinks in a pub in 2011, young Israeli engineers Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub hatched the crazy idea of building an unmanned spaceship to the Moon.

Winetraub was at Cape Canaveral in Florida when that spaceship – named Beresheet, Hebrew for “Genesis” – finally departed on its daring SpaceIL mission on February 21, 2019.

Though it crash-landed in April, Beresheet proved that with a lot of ingenuity and patience (not to mention funding), the sky’s the limit.

Now, Winetraub has won a prestigious award toward realizing a very different mission: detecting cancer without biopsies.

Having earned his doctorate in biophysics earlier this year at Stanford University, the 34-year-old Israeli has opened a lab at Stanford that’s using optical coherence tomography (OCT) and machine learning to image cancer noninvasively, at a single-cell resolution.

Winetraub’s Early Independence Award from the US National Institutes of Health provides $250,000 per year for up to five years of independent research. Only 10 “exceptional junior scientists” win this prize annually.

The NIH award will support development of a virtual version of the current process for detecting tumors and confirming their boundaries – analyzing chemically stained sections of biopsied tissue.

OCT imaging, Winetraub explained, “provides real-time diagnosis of tumor margins and invasiveness by scanning a large tissue area for residual cancer cells. Such information would guide treatment decisions for diseases such as brain and skin cancer.”

Winetraub’s method would make biopsies unnecessary, “saving patients valuable time in learning results and saving medical expenses and unnecessary pain and scarring.”

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