Yoram Palti, Novocure’s Founder and Chief Technology Officer, started Novocure in 2000 based on the novel idea that electric fields at very specific frequencies could be harnessed to treat cancer.
A professor emeritus of physiology and biophysics at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Professor Palti combined his decades of expertise in physics, biology and medicine to invent Tumor Treating Fields (TTFields), electric fields that disrupt cancer cell division. Today, TTFields therapy is approved in certain countries for the treatment of adults with glioblastoma or mesothelioma, and the therapy shows promise in multiple other tumor types.
Professor Palti, 2022 Israel Prize recipient in the field of entrepreneurship and technological innovation, reflects on his journey of discovering TTFields.
Q: Congratulations on receiving the 2022 Israel Prize. What does it mean to you to be recognized by the State of Israel for your excellence in entrepreneurship and innovation?
A: I’m very honored and happy, obviously, to get this prize. I see it as recognizing more than innovation, but also extensive research, 40 years of doing basic research, trying and succeeding in applying this research into things which are of use to people. That was always my target.
Q: You founded Novocure based on a novel idea: that electric fields at very specific frequencies could be harnessed to treat cancer. What inspired you to apply your combined expertise in physics and medicine to cancer therapy?
A: Simple analysis brings me, and I would say it would bring anybody else to the conclusion, that the top medical issues humanity faces are cancer, cardiac diseases and diabetes. So I decided I would go for the three of those. Why cancer first? I can’t even say, but I did receive a lot of encouragement from friends and colleagues to pursue cancer. Somehow the biggest human fear, probably, is cancer rather than other things.
Q: You showed a lot of courage when you went back into the laboratory to explore this new area of research. At the time, you were very established in your academic career, leading a large research institute at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. How did you find the drive to pursue this new idea?
A: It’s sort of interesting that if you are successful scientist, you start going up the ranks. Eventually I found myself sitting on top of the pyramid, the head of the Rappaport Institute at the Technion, becoming an administrator, rather than a researcher.
I was really unhappy doing paperwork. I like to do research and mostly to solve problems, to tackle questions and try to find solution to issues of importance. So I went back to the laboratory. And I wanted to use all my background, which is basic science, to do things of medical use.
So I regressed 40 years back to my doctoral research on electric fields. That’s what I knew, and I was trying to utilize my knowledge in order to find a solution to cancer. That was the way.
Q: Throughout history, many inventors have faced skepticism of their new ideas. When you introduced the idea of Tumor Treating Fields, some people were slow to embrace it. How did you overcome this challenge?
A: Well, there were, I would say, two major problems. One problem is that through the years, there were many people who claimed that they could cure all the diseases and problems in the world with electrical fields. And that obviously makes a lot of people skeptical when somebody new comes in and says, me too. The other problem was that many physicians had a hard time understanding and accepting it. They were not used to it. Although they saw the results, that it seemed to be very effective, they had a hard time adapting to it.
I would say it was being stubborn on the one hand that helped me. I wouldn’t say that my stubbornness characterizes me, but the fact that there is a problem, and it’s important, and you feel that you have a solution, you just go for it and you don’t take no for an answer. Also, some very good friends that knew me from my electrophysiology work helped me share my findings. When we published our first paper in a top-tier journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in 2007, it helped a lot.
Q: Today, Novocure is a global oncology company with more than 1,200 employees and more than 24,000 patients treated to date. When you started doing the research that laid the groundwork for Novocure, did you imagine it would evolve to have this much impact?
A: Well, I would say I dreamed of it, but I didn’t really know whether it was going to develop this way.
At the beginning, I put the devices on the patients with my own hands, setting up the equipment, setting up the conditions. We were sort of holding fingers crossed that it was going to work. We didn’t know what was going to happen.
So it took a long time until this company grew and could go along with little hands-on involvement from my point of view.
But, I did dream of it and hoped that we would be able to succeed. Still, the dream is not quite there. We are still going and hope to eventually help more patients.
Q: What does it feel it like to see others build on your discoveries and deliver continuous product improvements, such as the new higher-intensity, more flexible arrays?
A: I am really very glad and thankful that people are enthusiastic and dedicated enough to do all of these things, many of which they can do much better than I can. People have different backgrounds and expertise. I don’t have any claim to know everything and to understand everything. Some things they can do much better with their background and so on. So it is all very rewarding.
The fact that there is a problem, and it’s important, and you feel that you have a solution, you just go for it and you don’t take no for an answer.—
Novocure Founder and Chief Technology Officer
Q: Do you often speak to patients about the impact of Tumor Treating Fields?
A: Many patients keep in contact with me, many on the anniversary of their treatment. They give me a call and say, “Hi, I’m OK. I want to thank you.” And what’s more rewarding than that?
There are many cases which are unfortunately the other way around; people who are not doing well are calling me, trying to see if I can find solutions to their problems. And when there is no way to help, those calls are devastating.
Q: You have published more than 80 patents and more than 100 scientific journal articles. What are you working on now?
A: On top of Novocure, I have six additional companies. I’m pursuing additional fields and treatments for diseases beyond cancer.
Q: What do you think the future holds for Novocure?
A: I hope we can eventually get approval to treat more types of tumors. I hope Novocure will just extend and expand and cooperate with other companies. I hope that we’ll join in together and do what’s best for the patients.