A method of diagnosis that pushes cancer to self-reveal


The German-American entrepreneur Cyriac Roeding read an article in a magazine dedicated to Sam Gambhir, a doctor and scientist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. In the article, Gambhir described how he dedicated his career to early cancer detection, only to lose his teenage son Milan to a very aggressive brain tumor in 2015. Roeding, co-founder of mobile shopping app Shopkick, was impressed by Gambhir’s story and immediately sent him an email, asking to meet. Over the next few months, Gambhir became Roeding’s guide into the complex world of biology and engineering.


Thus was born the medical technology company EARLI, which is successfully working on a method that will make it possible to detect tumors as soon as they appear, even providing indications of their location in the body. In the case of cancer, time is of the essence: the sooner it is detected, the longer the patient will live. Early diagnosis of cancer has become a key goal in oncology: there are dozens of companies working on liquid biopsy technology, which analyzes blood samples for DNA fragments released by cancer cells. But that wasn’t enough for Gambhir. His personal experience has made him realize that waiting for the cancer to grow large enough to be detectable in the bloodstream takes too much time and wastes more time because he says nothing about its location. “We can’t rely on cancer signals, because nature simply may not be providing them all the time,” he told Roeding. “But if we bioengineer the signal, then early cancers can become consistently visible.”

That’s the premise behind EARLI, which Roeding and Gambhir launched together in June 2018. The California startup has already raised $40 million funded by founders and presidents of various Silicon Valley companies.

EARLI’s approach essentially forces the cancer to reveal itself. The bioengineered DNA is injected into the body; when it enters cancer cells, it forces them to produce a synthetic biomarker not normally found in humans, limonene , a chemical found in the peel of citrus fruits. Next, the patient undergoes a breath or blood test. If traces of this biomarker are found, it could be a sign of the presence of the tumor.


In order to understand where exactly the cancer is in the body, after blood tests, limonene is injected. This forces the tumor cells to produce an enzyme which engulfs a radioactive tracer (the tracer  is an atom or a molecule which leaves a  measurable trace , allowing to obtain information on the spatial distribution of a substance), making it visible to the naked eye, through a scan.


The application of the method

Trial of the method began in June 2021 in Melbourne, Australia after having been successful in mice. The first human participant was Ted Cunningham, 84, an engineer with end-stage lung cancer: the goal of the trial was to demonstrate that the technology is safe and can find cancer in patients, so it is a patient was chosen in whom the presence of the tumor had already been confirmed. The plan calls for EARLI to be used at every stage of cancer prevention and treatment: for diagnostic monitoring in high-risk groups such as smokers; for pre-treatment, to find out if there is cancer elsewhere in the body; during treatment, to make tumors easier for surgeons to locate; and after treatment, to detect any recurring tumors earlier.

The location of the cancer makes it treatable: Doctors can use precision radiation or targeted surgery to eliminate it. EARLI is planning to use the same approach to target and treat cancer, killing cells after they’ve been found, although this idea is still in its infancy.


Sam Gambhir never got to see his idea in action. Six months after founding the company, he was diagnosed with cancer that had already spread to his bone marrow. He died 16 months later, in July 2020. “For a man who has spent his entire career trying to prevent this from happening, the irony does not escape us,” says David Suhy, chief scientist at Earli. Roeding and Suhy are feeling pressure to make the method work. “We’re here to carry Sam’s torch forward,” Roeding says. “And we have to fly this thing.”

  • A cancer genius died from cancer. His startup is getting revenge


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