Life & Culture

Meet the Israeli scientist curing cancer with bubbles

Dr Tali Ilovitsh is an Israeli doctor pioneering a new approach to tackling tumours


Halfway through interviewing Dr Tali Ilovitsh in the lounge of a Regent’s Park hotel, the barman starts shaking a cocktail mixer. This is partly annoying — will the noise drown out my recording? — and partly amusing since the timing couldn’t be more apt. Dr Ilovitsh, a senior lecturer at the department of biomedical engineering at Tel Aviv University, is explaining how her research into bubbles could provide a huge breakthrough in cancer treatment.

“Our new technology makes it possible, in a relatively simple way, to inject nanobubbles into the bloodstream. These then congregate around a cancerous tumour. After that, using a low-frequency ultrasound, we explode the nanobubbles and thereby, we destroy the tumour.”

In case readers are more familiar with the bubbles found in a bar than those found in a laboratory, nanobubbles are less than 200 nanometres in diameter, that is 2,500 times smaller than a single grain of salt. They can be formed using any gas and injected into any liquid, improving numerous physical, chemical and biological processes.

Ilovitsh’s use of nanobubbles with ultrasound could radically change the way patients are treated for a variety of cancers, but could be particularly advantageous to people who are suffering from brain cancer. “Whenever you want to have access to the brain, you need to drill a hole in the skull, but because low-frequency ultrasound has the capability of penetrating through an intact skull, this holds the promise of non-invasive brain treatment.”

The 34-year-old, who was recently in London to lecture on the new technology, says she feels “really proud” of the advances she and her team have made. The hope is that the treatment, which, unlike other cancer treatments, doesn’t also destroy healthy tissue, will be available in the next few years.

Ilovitsh’s discovery happened after she “accidentally” came across a paper while she was completing her PhD in electrical engineering at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. “I found a paper that had developed a method for ultrasound that I was working on in optics. I realised that any improvement that I could add to ultrasound could have a significant impact and be really clinically translatable.”

This revelation led to her transitioning from optics to ultrasound for her post-doctorate, first joining a laboratory at the University of California at Davis before moving to Stanford. There, as well as exploring ultrasound imaging techniques, she also researched therapeutic ultrasound, which is what she now applies to nanobubbles.

Ilovitsh’s CV makes impressive reading and her voracious appetite for learning and discovery has been in evidence since she was young. “As a child, I was in a programme for gifted children. I remember in sixth grade building a rocket and I thought to myself that I really like building stuff.”

Ilovitsh initially wanted to become an engineer. “I didn’t want to be a biomedical engineer. I wanted to develop chips in circuits for computers.” But her curiosity about biomedicine was piqued during her Masters, so for her PhD in electrical engineering,  she decided to study microscopy, working with cells.

She cites her mother, a computer programmer, for influencing her to pursue STEM subjects. “My mother studied computing at university at a time when no one knew what computers were. Her uncle told her: ‘I think computers might be the next generation,’ so she decided to study them.”

Years later, when Ilovitsh was an electrical engineering undergraduate at Bar Ilan, she found that she was one of only ten women among 150 men. “We were a minority, but I can’t say that the fact I am a woman stops me from getting to the point that I want to get to. I really like [science] and whenever I like something, I hold on to it and I invest myself in it.”

Nor did having three children under three deter Ilovitsh and her husband, a physicist, from taking up post-doctoral fellowships in America between 2016 and 2019. “When my husband and I met at university, he already knew that I was going for a post-doc and he wanted to go on this adventure with me.”

She says it is usually at this stage in academia that many women drop out because of the requirement to study abroad. Ilovitsh, who lives in Petah Tikva, admits she was lucky that her husband embraced the chance to live and study overseas.

The pair make a strong unit, she says. “My husband is not only aware of my research, but he is engaged in it as well. We have a 3D printer in my house and he designs parts which we then use in the lab. I constantly consult with him about stuff and he has been a co-author on some of my papers. We really are a team.”

This teamwork also extends to childcare. The couple, who now have four children, share the domestic workload. Nonetheless, Ilovitsh still finds herself feeling torn. “I am very demanding towards myself and so, whenever I know that something is going on [at work] and I can’t be there, it annoys me. But my kids come first and being a mum is the first hat that I wear. Yet, there is always this conflict.”

Often, after putting her children to bed, she works into the night. But the one time in the week she doesn’t feel the juggle between home life and work is on Shabbat, when, as an observant Jew, she turns off her computer and “can really rest. On regular days, whenever I’m not working, my mind keeps telling me that I should be working. There are always deadlines to meet and things to do, but on Saturday, it’s family time and I really like it.”

Today, in her role as a mentor at Tel Aviv University, she encourages and supports women in STEM. “We have these groups, where we talk about ourselves. I have undergraduate mentees and we keep discussing the issue of how to combine family and work.”

Another role that has unintentionally come about is being an unofficial spokesperson for her country.

“I feel that wherever I go, I am an Israeli ambassador because, usually, when I present our findings at scientific conferences, I meet people who haven’t even heard of Israel.” And they are generally surprised by what she tells them. “They say to me: ‘Israel is really big’ and I say to them: ‘No, Israel is really small. It’s tiny. It’s more like a city.’ And they say: ‘How can it be that we hear so much about Israel and it’s so small?’”

What they usually hear about are the stories that make the headlines — the conflicts within and across Israel’s borders — an imbalance Ilovitsh is determined to redress. “Israelis really are world leaders in the fields of technology and biomedicine. The number of startups compared to the number of people living there is unprecedented.

“I think it is very important to expose the world to our scientific contributions and to all of the good things we are doing towards helping humanity.” Starting with bubbles.

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