Ellie Block, generous donor and Council Member, recently spoke with the Foundation about her interest in focused ultrasound, her involvement with the Foundation, and her commitment to pediatric initiatives.
Can you give us some brief biographical information?
Currently I serve as a member of the Council of the Focused Ultrasound Foundation. Additionally, I am a registered occupational therapist, business owner, and an active philanthropist with a lifelong passion for addressing critical issues that affect children and families. I currently serve as Chair of the Board of Advisors at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy; I am a Trustee of the University of Chicago Medical Center; and a member of the Executive Committee of the Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYULMC. I am also a member of the Board of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, the Israel Museum, Women Moving Millions, and was a founding member of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, and of the Hassenfeld Child Health Institute at Brown University. Some additional leadership posts past and present include: Chairman of the Hasbro Children’s Foundation; Founder and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the September 11th Children’s Fund; member of the Board of Overseers at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University; Chair of the International Development Program Committee for Disaster Relief of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; and Vice Chair of Meyers Brookdale Institute. I am a graduate of Tufts University and the recipient of the Children’s Aid Society Charles Loring Brace Award, the National Hannah Solomon Award, and the TAGIE Humanitarian Award.
What is your connection to the Focused Ultrasound Foundation?
I was introduced to focused ultrasound by my dear friend, the late David Heller (a long-time friend and one of the earliest and most generous supporters of the Focused Ultrasound Foundation) who often searched out cutting-edge medical treatments that had the potential to help many. He knew of my interest in innovative approaches in pediatrics and family medicine.
What moved you to get involved?
Initially, I was most impressed by the holistic solution focused ultrasound offers. Often new technologies in healthcare focus on “cure” without attention to “care.” Focused ultrasound not only potentially offers a safer and effective cure for a wide range of illnesses, but also a significant reduction in the emotional, physical, and financial stress of illness.
Imagine how it feels to a child and family to have an option that is noninvasive. Focused ultrasound lowers the risk of the complications that can occur in surgery, leaves no physical scars, and eliminates the need for lengthy follow-up therapy, all in less time and at less cost. Think of how traditional surgery consumes and disrupts a child’s life, and the stress it puts on both the child and family. Compare that to the potential of focused ultrasound noninvasive therapy – you don’t want to wait one more minute than absolutely necessary to make it a widely available treatment option for kids and their families.
The technology itself is what originally piqued my interest. The other thing that drew me to the Foundation was (and still is) the way Neal Kassell and his entire team at the Foundation engage all the stakeholders in designing translational research to move the adoption of focused ultrasound applications forward in the most efficient and effective way. Neal and his team have managed to corral the entire focused ultrasound scientific research community into proactively seeking opportunities to facilitate constant communication with practitioner-physicians, the FDA, and insurance companies. The Foundation is taking the time now to collect and compile all kinds of detailed data that will, hopefully, demonstrate the highest standards of safety and efficacy, patient satisfaction, long-term benefit, and cost-effectiveness, so that it can achieve three things quickly: 1) FDA approval, 2) adoption by doctors as a preferred technique, and, 3) insurance reimbursement.
This kind of detailed, patient-centered, systematic, careful, inclusive, holistic approach is something I’ve rarely seen and something I think is needed throughout our healthcare system. I wanted to be involved.
What excites you most about focused ultrasound?
The potential focused ultrasound has for treating so many illnesses – all kinds of cancers, neurological disorders, painful and disabling bone disorders, endocrine, cardiovascular, pediatric – I can’t name them all.
When I was asked to fund the first focused ultrasound pediatric pilot trial for osteoid osteoma (OO) in 2015, I didn’t even know what an osteoid osteoma was. It is a benign bone abnormality that is very, very painful and can be horribly disabling for a child. Many doctors are very hesitant to perform open surgery, because good outcomes with full resolution of the pain are rare. Medical research funds are extremely competitive to get and an OO tumor is not “a killer.” Yet a child with OO is living day-to-day with a tumor that severely affects their quality of life. These tumors cause great pain – so much so that they may not even be able to walk, let alone run and play like a typical active, healthy child. This can affect social interactions with other children and even make that child a target of ridicule by other children. Additionally, a significant number of these children with OO require long-term use of narcotics to control their pain, which can have a negative impact on their cognitive abilities at school. Now imagine that there is a noninvasive technique that can almost immediately eliminate all the pain and disability; that child gets their life back. They get to return to being a normal kid. And, it’s faster and cheaper than current options. You asked what excites me. That excites me. Take this one example and apply that across the board to the ever expanding list of applications now in the focused ultrasound research pipeline – now that’s what really excites me!
Why do you care so much about focused ultrasound?
We all have our own stories about illnesses that have shaped our lives and the people we love. As I see it, there are two big game-changers that focused ultrasound offers:
- We can make these experiences less painful by reducing the physical risks associated with surgery as well as reducing the emotional and economic stress.
- As a noninvasive technique, it can potentially be used in parts of the world with limited healthcare infrastructure – things that are routinely found in any operating room in the US can be scarce resources elsewhere in the world – severely limiting surgical options for many millions of people in areas of poverty and remote corners of the world. With a well-trained medical team and a focused ultrasound machine, we could potentially fight brain tumors, uterine fibroids, essential tremor, and myriad other illnesses in the developing world where currently there are limited or zero treatment options.
What impact do you hope to achieve through your philanthropy?
To provide equal access to those things that improve the quality of life for children, families, and communities, wherever they are, whatever their circumstances.
What do you tell others about FUSF?
If you want to make a meaningful and measureable impact, something that will change healthcare and how it is administered for millions of people around the world, this is it.
What would you tell someone who is considering making a gift to the Focused Ultrasound Foundation?
We need you in this with us. In fact, my current three-year gift, supporting osteoid osteoma pivotal trials at Stanford and UCSF, requires the Foundation to raise matching funds for just this reason. I want people who aren’t in a position to provide sizeable funding to be able to leverage the impact they can make by joining me in supporting this pivotal trial, the results of which we hope will lead to FDA approval within five years, and a less painful future for children, teens, and adults with osteoid osteomas everywhere. Whether this trial, or any of the others, by supporting the Foundation you will be supporting an important medical option that can save and better lives around the world.