Can We Detect Cancer Early Enough to Make a Difference? This Arizona Biotechnology Company is Making it Possible

Amancay Tapia

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It sounds simple enough: prevent more cancer deaths by detecting disease sooner. But despite major strides in the medical industry and in cancer research, detecting cancer early isn’t a simple process. It requires complex and precise science and tools that are both accessible and affordable. And that’s exactly the problem, or rather set of problems, that Phoenix -based biotechnology firm, Calviri, Inc. is solving today.

“The initial hope in the medical industry for creating widescale screenings for early detection of cancer was based on the application of new sequencing technologies to detect DNA from tumors in the blood. This has proven more difficult than expected,” said Stephen Albert Johnston, CEO and Chairman of the Board at Calviri, noting that some current early detection methods have difficulty detecting common cancers like breast cancer because the associated tumors don’t shed much detectable DNA, are expensive to produce and analyze, and need large volumes of blood to be accurate.

“To make early detection of cancer effective worldwide there are some specific requirements,” said Johnston. “The diagnostic must be sensitive enough to find the most prevalent cancers at stage one or earlier 90 percent of the time. That diagnostic also should only require a small amount of blood so the sample could even be taken at home, and the test needs to be inexpensive so everyone can afford it, or so it is of advantage to health insurance providers. At Calviri, we have developed a unique system that may meet all of these requirements.”

According to the National Cancer Institute, roughly 609,820 people in the United States alone will die of cancer this year. And the five most common, or prevalent cancers— breast cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer, and colorectal cancer— are responsible for roughly 42 percent of those deaths. Believe it or not, these numbers are encouraging. A January 2023 study that appeared in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, reported that the cancer death rate in the US has fallen by more than a third since 1991. That equates to roughly 3.8 million lives saved and is in part due to advances in early detection.

“There are established screenings for breast, lung, and colon cancer that have contributed significantly to the early detection of cancer,” said Johnston, adding that scientists know for certain that early detection reduces deaths from these and other cancers.

A diagnostic with the capability to detect all cancers at earlier stages, for example, could have far-reaching effects, especially for cancers that typically remain undetected until they are in late stage and difficult, if not impossible to treat. That includes pancreatic cancer— one of the deadliest forms of cancer— which is currently diagnosed in late stages in roughly 80 percent of cases, and has a five-year survival rate of less than 10 percent. According to Johnston, early detection of this cancer could completely upend expectations and turn the tide for patient outcomes. “Right now, there is no standard screening for pancreatic cancer like there is for breast and colon cancer, and symptoms do not usually appear until later stages,” he said. “However, the early stages may be latent for years before breaking out and becoming aggressive. If the disease could be detected at these very early stages, pancreatic cancer could be cured.”

Finding the signals of pancreatic cancer and other types of cancer at early stages is a challenge, as is finding better and safer ways to treat cancer once it is found. And one that Calviri has taken up by focusing both on the development of an accessible, affordable, accurate cancer diagnostic and a therapeutic cancer vaccine.

“Ideally, in the future, we will have a treatment besides radiation, chemo or surgery that is more effective and that has fewer side effects, like the vaccine we are currently working on for treating stage one tumors,” said Johnston. “But barring the invention of a preventative vaccine for all cancers, and Calviri is testing such a vaccine now, the best way to significantly reduce cancer deaths worldwide is still to establish a simple screening for early detection of cancer because even standard treatments today can be curative for most cancers detected at the earliest stages.”

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