When Asael Lubotzky led his soldiers into battle against Hezbollah, he knew he might be wounded or killed.
What the infantry platoon commander never could have imagined was that a crippling injury would catapult him into becoming a best-selling author — and, eventually, a physician.
Despite wounds in Lebanon that nearly cost him his life, Lubotzky is now one of Israel’s most promising cancer researchers. He focuses on early diagnosis and treatment based on blood tests.
Lubotzky says the 2006 battle at Bint Jbeil — just two miles north of the Israel-Lebanon border — changed his destiny.
“It was Aug. 9, 2006 — the 15th of Av,” recalled Lubotzky, 35, who still needs crutches to walk. “I was talking on the radio, trying to help my guys navigate. I opened the hatch and lifted my upper body out in order to see better. Just then, an anti-tank missile fired by Hezbollah hit my vehicle. If I had been sitting at that moment, I wouldn’t be here today.”
That miracle, which Lubotzky attributes to his deep faith in G-d (he had lain tefillin that morning, as he does every day), was the first of many that enabled him not only to avoid the amputation of his severed right leg, but later to marry, have four children and realize his post-traumatic dream of becoming a doctor.
Today Lubotzky is an M.D. completing his doctorate at Hebrew University, where he shares a lab with 10 other researchers.
After his injury, the Jerusalem-born Lubotzky, who grew up in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, decided to tell the dramatic story of his recovery. What became his 190-page autobiography began as a story of the battle that nearly killed him.
“I started writing because of all those long days laying in the hospital trying to remember the events,” Lubotzky said. “Many of my fellow comrades came to visit me, and we spoke about combat. I began writing a technical diary, with dates and what we did. As time went on, I elaborated and wrote more about what I felt. Later on, I decided to write about the rehabilitation process.”
In the 10 years since its publication, Lubotzky’s book, From the Wilderness to Lebanon, has sold nearly 20,000 copies in Hebrew and has been translated into English. His second book, Not My Last Journey, came out last year and documents the life of his grandfather, partisan and Irgun officer Iser Lubotzky.
In another twist, the mother of the doctor whom Lubotzky credits with saving his leg had been a nurse with a group of partisans in Europe fighting Nazis when she treated a man with a terrible leg wound — who turned out to be Lubotzky’s grandfather.
Inspired by doctors who treated him during recovery, Lubotzky soon turned his sights to medicine. He eventually decided to focus on research, and joined the lab of Yuval Dor at Hebrew University’s Department of Developmental Biology and Cancer Research. He plans to finish his residency next year at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center, specializing in neurology and genetics.
In early July, the Israel Cancer Research Fund, which distributes $4 million per year in grants for cancer research projects in Israel, awarded Lubotzky a two-year research grant worth $50,000.
Lubotzky’s research is focused on the links between DNA and cancer. When a cell dies, it often releases short DNA fragments into the blood known as circulating cell-free DNA, or cfDNA. Doctors have begun using liquid biopsies to sequence cfDNA and use the results to detect fetal chromosomal aberrations, hidden tumors and graft rejection in solid organ transplants.
By looking for specific epigenetic marks carried by circulating cfDNA, scientists can make early diagnoses of various forms of cancer. For example, if a man has cancer, examining the circulating cell-free DNA along with the epigenetic marks in his blood may reveal and locate the primary tumor or metastatic tissue of origin.
“By sequencing those DNA fragments and epigenetic marks, we can infer the rate of cell death from various tissues,” Lubotzky said. “You can also perhaps track response to treatments from circulating cfDNA from tumors.”
“Here I have the combination of a very advanced molecular biology lab with clinical skills,” he said. “Though we work on very unique issues, we speak about the diseases of patients. We work on humans, not mice.”
Mark Israel, executive director of the Israel Cancer Research Fund, said his organization finds Lubotzky’s work promising.
“ICRF Postdoctoral Fellowships empower young investigators who have a serious commitment to academic medicine to obtain research training in leading laboratories,” Israel said. “This coveted grant from ICRF recognizes Dr. Lubotzky’s demonstrated abilities to overcome great challenges and his potential to use those same skills to heal the world.”
Lubotzky still contends with great physical pain stemming from his war injury. He underwent intense physical therapy in the early years after his injury, and today he’s careful to swim almost every morning — before heading off to morning prayer services.
“My body has to overcome lots of pressures that healthy people don’t have to overcome,” he said. “When I’m more active and do more sports and hold my kids in my arms, I think less about the pain. Yes, it’s something that’s going to be with me my entire life. But I’ve found ways to overcome it.”