Inaugural Gambhir Symposium honors, discusses late researcher’s work

July 21, 2021, 5:59 a.m.

Cancer experts warned of a paucity of preventative screenings during the COVID-19 pandemic at an inaugural symposium in honor of a leader in the field of early detection on Monday. 

Clinical cancer screenings declined in prevalence by about 95% in the U.S. during the pandemic, according to National Cancer Institute director Norman Sharpless. 

Sharpless warned that this drop in preventative screenings could lead to doctors seeing more end-stage cancers in the upcoming year, with a greater proportion of cancer cases going undetected in the early stages of development. Although in-hospital cancer detection tests decreased in prevalence, Sharpless added that at-home diagnostic tools became much more popular during lockdown periods. 

Sharpless said that the consistent use of at-home cancer screening methods during the pandemic is evidence that there should be more home-based screening. “This could also be of tremendous benefit to patients outside of the United States, perhaps in low- and middle-income countries,” he said.

The Gambhir Symposium, hosted by Stanford Medicine, was developed in honor of radiology professor Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, a pioneer in molecular imaging and early cancer detection who died last July. Gambhir was the former director of Stanford’s Canary Center for Early Cancer Detection and served as chair of the radiology department. 

The conference, which was sponsored by the department of radiology, featured 21 doctors and researchers representing 10 academic institutions who spoke about the future of cancer detection and precision health at Stanford. 

Ralph Weissleder, a former mentee of Gambhir and current professor of radiology and systems biology at Harvard Medical School, praised Gambhir’s mentorship and support as he pursued research on early detection of pancreatic cancer.

“Gambhir applied a mathematical rigor to everything we did,” Weissleder said. “His ability to ask the right questions was really uncanny.”

Michael Phelps, emeritus professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at the University of California, Los Angeles, characterized the symposium as an important interdisciplinary approach to addressing the obstacles in the early detection of cancer. He said that collaboration from multiple fields of medicine and science is crucial in the achievement of a scientific breakthrough. 

Furthering the discussion of Gambhir’s life’s work, David Suhy spoke of his experiences co-founding the biotech company Earli with Gambhir. Earli focuses on early detection of cancer through the use of synthetic biomarkers, an innovation that Gambhir first ideated. The effective use of synthetic biomarker technologies could allow several types of cancer to be detected as early as Stage I, greatly improving a patient’s chance of survival, according to Suhy. 

Suhy added his praise to Gambhir’s character and professional achievements: “He was an amazing clinician, an amazing scientist, but at the end of the day he was an even better person.”

Several of Gambhir’s mentors and colleagues described as unique the mindset with which Gambhir approached scientific discovery. “Sam sought to create greatness in others,” Phelps said. “And from this he created greatness in himself.”

Another of Gambhir’s mentees, Cristina Zavaleta, shared the extent of his academic family tree, pointing to how many mentees he took on. Gambhir’s wife Aruna Gambhir added that teaching and mentoring other aspiring scientists was very important to her husband.

“He thought of his trainees as candles,” she said. “He felt it was important to inspire them to work on improving human health and alleviating suffering.”

Stanford Medical School dean Lloyd Minor spoke about Gambhir’s impact on the field of medicine.

“The legacy of Sam Gambhir will drive us today, and for years to come,” Minor said.

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