Fighting Off Cancer
Cancer is often called a “stealth” disease because it is hard to detect in its early stages. Sometimes the disease can start spreading by the time cancer cells become noticeable in imaging tests. Scientists say when cancer is identified early on, the chances for successful treatment are better than when detected after the disease has spread.
Sam Gambhir, a physician and scientist at Stanford University School of Medicine, spent decades trying to find new ways to make small, hidden cancerous tumors easier to see so they do not have time to grow and spread.
One day, Dr. Gambhir asked Cyriac Roeding, a German-American entrepreneur interested in his research, “What if we stopped searching for cancer altogether; what if we didn’t look anymore? What if, instead, we forced cancer to reveal itself?’”
To find out the answer to that question, Roeding and Gambhir launched a startup company in California in 2018. The result was Earli, a bioengineering firm that used technology licensed from Stanford University to develop a technique to search for cancer cells. Sadly, while working on the project, Dr. Gambhir’s 15-year-old son, Milan, died in 2015 after battling a type of highly aggressive brain cancer.
Roeding said Dr. Gambhir told him, “We cannot rely on cancer signals that nature may simply not provide to us at all times. But if we bioengineer the signal, then early tumors can become consistently visible.”
According to Roeding, Earli’s approach essentially forces cancer to reveal itself by following this process:
• Bioengineered DNA is injected into the body.
• After entering the cancer cells, the bioengineered DNA forces the cells to produce synthetic biomarkers not normally found in humans, such as limonene, a chemical found in the peel of citrus fruits.
• If subsequent breath or blood tests find traces of the biomarkers, it could be a sign of cancer.
• To figure out exactly where the cancer is located in the body, a compound is injected that forces the cancer cells to produce an enzyme that then consumes a radioactive tracer visible to the naked eye in a scan.
• Localizing cancer makes it treatable—clinicians can use precision radiation or targeted surgery to take it out.
“Once you find [a tumor] and you can localize it, you can act on it, and then it becomes protection, not just detection,” Roeding said in an interview with Fast Company.
In the first clinical trials, Earli’s synthetic biopsy technology provided a clear signal of the presence of cancer in lab mice and dogs. These results supported moving forward with a clinical trial for human patients. The trial began in June 2021.
Unfortunately, Dr. Gambhir will not be able to see the outcome of the latest trial. Six months after Earli was founded, Dr. Gambhir was diagnosed with cancer that had already spread to his bone marrow. Sadly, Dr. Gambhir died in July 2020. He was 57.
“For a guy who spent his entire career trying to prevent this from happening, the irony is not lost on us,” David Suhy, Earli’s chief scientific officer, told Wired UK magazine. Roeding and Suhy are dedicated to doing Earli’s approach work. “We’re here to carry Sam’s torch,” Roeding said. “And we’ve got to make this thing fly.”
In addition to Earli’s technique, a “liquid biopsy” is another new method gaining traction for finding cancer in its early stages. A liquid biopsy is a blood test that finds cancer cells and cancer DNA in the blood. The test is more commonly used to detect non-small cell lung cancer in an early stage but is also being studied to detect other types of cancer.
Study: Plant-Based Foods Cut Bowel Cancer Risk in Men
Men who eat a diet rich in vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and lentils may reduce their risk of colorectal cancer, also known as bowel cancer, by up to 22 percent, a new study shows.
The study, published in the journal BMC Medicine, involved 79,952 U.S. men. Researchers did not find any link between eating plant-based foods and bowel cancer risk among the 93,475 U.S. women in the study.
Researchers say this is primarily because men have a higher risk of bowel cancer than women. The average age of the men in the study was 60 years old, and the women were about 59.
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer worldwide, and the risk of developing colorectal cancer over a lifetime is 1 in 23 for men and 1 in 25 for women, according to Jihye Kim, the study’s co-author, who is also a professor of genetics and biotechnology at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, South Korea.
“We speculate that the antioxidants found in foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains could contribute to lowering colorectal cancer risk by suppressing chronic inflammation, which can lead to cancer,” Kim said in a news release about the study. “As men tend to have a higher risk of colorectal cancer than women, we propose that this could help explain why eating more healthy plant-based foods was associated with reduced colorectal cancer risk in men but not women.”
Study participants were asked how often they ate certain foods and drank during the previous year. To answer that question, participants were given a list of more than 180 options that were divided into the following groups:
• Healthy plant foods—whole grains, fruits, vegetables, vegetable oils, nuts, legumes, tea, and coffee
• Less healthy plant foods—refined grains, fruit juices, potatoes, added sugars
• Animal foods—meat, dairy, eggs, fish, or seafood
The responses ranged from “never or hardly ever” to “two or more times a day” when asked how often they ate each food item. They were also asked about portion size. Responses for drinks ranged from “never or hardly ever” to “four or more times a day.”
The researchers cautioned that their study did not take into account other factors, such as the beneficial effects that fish, dairy, and other foods may have in reducing colorectal cancer risk in their analysis. The investigators added that participants’ diets were recorded at the beginning of the study, but they may not be representative of their lifetime diets.
Despite the cautions from the authors, health and nutritional experts say this study adds to existing evidence about the benefits of eating a diet high in fruit, vegetables, and fiber for both men and women.
Dr. Helen Croker, head of research interpretation at the World Cancer Research Fund, said her organization welcomes the research. Croker suggested one reason why men had an increased risk for bowel cancer is due to the speculation that “men, in general, had a lower intake of plant foods and a higher intake of animal foods than women—so there was perhaps a ceiling effect to the benefits that women may experience.”