CEO Tiffany Ma wants to ease people’s fears around cancer through self-testing.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, accounting for the loss of 10 million lives in 2020. To prevent these deaths, cancer needs to be detected at an early stage. But detection remains a challenge, particularly in lower-income countries, where there is a dearth of diagnostic tools.
As a student of molecular cancer biology at the University of Oxford, Tiffany Ma became acutely aware of the importance of speeding up the process of cancer diagnosis. Determined to make a difference, she decided to start her own biotech company, Gambit Bio, to create a low-cost point-of-care device for diagnosing early-stage cancer. We spoke to Ma to learn more about her academic ventures, her company and how her previous experiences have helped shape Gambit Bio.
What promoted Ma to create Gambit Bio
Ma graduated from the University of California (UC) Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in molecular cell biology in 2017. Since then, she has continued working in this space and has authored several scientific papers on tumor hypoxia, which is when a tumor is deprived of oxygen. As a tumor grows, the amount of oxygen it consumes becomes greater than how much the blood vessels around it can supply. Regarding that feature of cancer cells, Ma shares that doctors use tumor hypoxia as an indicator of how likely cancer is to spread to other parts of the body and how resistant it would be to radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
“What I like about tumor hypoxia is that it can be used as a biomarker,” said Ma. Biomarkers are indicators of abnormal processes or diseases. “It’s unique to tumors (we don’t observe this in normal healthy cells), but also common amongst them. This makes tumor hypoxia a very good ‘biomarker’ when we try to determine whether or not a person has cancer,” she added.
Her work studying tumor hypoxia and her interest in biomarkers are what sparked the idea of Gambit Bio in her mind when during the pandemic she saw how quickly everyone was adapting to self-testing. “One obvious question came to mind—if we can bother testing this much for Covid-19, why can’t we do the same for cancer, which is the world’s second-biggest killer?” she pondered.
About Gambit Bio
With that question in mind, Ma decided to start Gambit Bio. She said that the typical process of cancer diagnosis involves going to the hospital or clinic for a scan, a mammogram or a biopsy, which not only takes a lot of time and money but is also highly invasive. Moreover, people aren’t undergoing these tests regularly enough to diagnose cancer in its early stages. Her idea was to create a lateral flow test (LFT) that people could either use at a general physician’s office or at home. LFTs are simple tests designed to detect the presence of a specific substance in a liquid sample without the need for costly equipment. The easiest way to understand this is to think of the rapid antigen tests done to detect the presence of COVID-19 virus in the body.
With Gambit Bio, Ma and her team intend to debunk the myth that cancer is a death sentence. “We just need to detect cancer early enough before symptoms even show up—then existing therapies and treatments can take care of the rest. The power is in our hands, and we can reclaim the narrative on cancer. It’s all about our perspective which then fuels our action,” she said, adding that the survival rate for most common cancers is 90% if they are detected early enough.
She mentioned that the “Gambit” in Gambit Bio comes from chess. Gambit is an initial move that gives the player a competitive edge later in the game. “By making the initial move of monitoring our health in a way that is convenient and not disruptive, we take the power and control back from cancer,” she explained.
How does Gambit Bio’s diagnostic tool work?
Gambit Bio intends to use novel proprietary biomarkers in their LFTs. These markers are based on a type of post-translational modification (chemical modifications in proteins) that has been relatively underutilized, studied and characterized due to a lack of optimized techniques and required equipment. While most self-testing kits on the market are based on deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or naked proteins, Gambit Bio’s proprietary biomarkers are more information-rich compared to them and thus would be better able to detect cancer.
“Currently, for example, you can purchase a home self-test kit for the protein PSA (prostate-specific antigen), of which high levels might indicate the presence of prostate cancer. However, this is not always accurate, and many other non-cancerous factors can lead to high levels of PSA,” Ma shares adding that Gambit Bio wants to increase the specificity of these markers.
Once the company begins production, customers would be able to order their test kit online, read the results within 30 minutes and quickly consult a doctor if the test comes back positive. “Our goal is not to replace the gold standard of cancer diagnosis but rather to supplement it,” she reiterated. Emphasizing that the company intends to make it possible for people to take a quick call to action about their health.
Learning from doing
Ma has poured all her experience working with biopharmaceutical company ZetaGen Therapeutics and research institute Nano and Advanced Materials Institute Ltd (NAMI) into Gambit Bio.
When asked about her learnings, she mentioned that ZetaGen Therapeutics taught her the agile methodology of working (setting deliverables to be created within short time frames) and that she uses it to run her own company. “We have an international team spread across Oxford, Harvard and UCLA—being aware of each other’s availabilities and consistent communication is extremely important,” she shared. Her time at NAMI has taught her how important it is to speak to the end-users when creating products, to which Gambit Bio is giving due diligence when creating their tests.
Her effort has indeed proven to be fruitful. Gambit Bio was one of the top ten companies out of the 150 teams who participated in Oxford All Innovate Competition in 2021 and one of the top six companies in the entrepreneurship program Catalyse. The company has finalized its pilot study design to generate proof-of-concept data for its product. Ma and her team are eager to join hands with like-minded investors who can help them get their tests out to the general public.
- What Is Biotechnology and How to Start a Biotech Company?
- Top 5 Women-Founded Startups You Should Know About
Header image courtesy of Freepik