Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, MD, PhD, Pioneer in Molecular Imaging, Dies at 57

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Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, MD, PhD

Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, MD, PhD

Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, MD, PhD, Professor and Chair of Radiology at the Stanford School of Medicine and an internationally recognized pioneer in molecular imaging, died on July 18, 2020, of cancer. He was 57.

The Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor of Cancer Research, Dr. Gambhir dedicated his career to developing methods of early disease detection, ushering in a new era of molecular imaging to flag signals of disease in its nascent stages. He was Director of the Canary Center at Stanford for Cancer Early Detection, Director of the Precision Health and Integrated Diagnostics Center at Stanford, and Director of the Molecular Imaging Program at Stanford.

“Sam was a true visionary and a scientist of the highest caliber. His research and innovations have, with no uncertainty, founded modern medicine’s approach to early disease diagnostics and will continue to guide the future of precision health,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, Dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine. “Sam’s contributions to Stanford, to human health, to the science of diagnostics, and to the many lives he has touched and impacted throughout his career have been immeasurable.”

Nurturing Mentor, Generous Friend

Within the field of radiology, Dr. Gambhir was known for the development of positron-emission tomography (PET) reporter genes, which can flag molecular activity that signals something’s gone awry in the body.

To colleagues far and wide, he was known as a leader and scientist with sprawling expertise and a work ethic to aspire to. More than that, colleagues said he was a kind and generous friend, a nurturing mentor, and a catalyst for collaboration.

On the eve of his death, he was awarded the Dean’s Medal, the Stanford University School of Medicine’s highest honor, for his “revolutionary contributions to biomedicine and to human health.” In tandem with the honor, Dr. Minor announced that a new professorship, the Sanjiv Sam Gambhir Professorship in Translational Medicine, would stand as a tribute to Dr. Gambhir’s remarkable career “to further recognize his unwavering leadership, compassion, and commitment to science and medicine.”

Part Physicist, Part Physician

From the earliest days of his career, Dr. Gambhir’s efforts focused on bringing his unusual background—a physicist-mathematician turned physician-scientist—to bear on improving patient health by developing technologies that could reveal early signs of disease, especially cancer. Of his many research efforts, the creation of PET reporter gene expression imaging was among the most impactful, earning him a reputation as a founding father of molecular imaging.

Dr. Gambhir took PET imaging to the next level through PET reporters. These particles can latch onto certain tissues based on their genetic activity, enabling PET scans not only to show where the cancer is growing, but to reveal the molecular details driving the disease. Such information can be used to tailor treatments to an individual or predict whether a patient may respond well to a certain type of drug.

In addition to his work on PET reporters, Dr. Gambhir is also credited as one of the individuals who helped ensure government insurance programs would reimburse medical providers for PET imaging. Thus, this established its foundation in the clinic, a crucial step in expanding PET as a go-to method for cancer diagnostics.

Precision Health Champion

In 2013, tragedy befell the Gambhir family. Milan, the teenage son of Dr. Gambhir and his wife, Aruna, was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme—the exact tumor type Dr. Gambhir had been studying in his lab. Dr. Gambhir and teams of multidisciplinary specialists both within and beyond Stanford fought for his son’s life for 21 months, but, in the end, Milan died on May 2, 2015.

“Sam’s contributions to Stanford, to human health, to the science of diagnostics, and to the many lives he has touched and impacted throughout his career have been immeasurable.”
— Lloyd Minor, MD

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Dr. Gambhir, who understood for decades that the focus on late-stage disease resulted in suboptimal health outcomes, worked diligently to shift the paradigm to focus on early cancer detection through his efforts at the Canary Center. His efforts have led to major investments globally by public and private sectors in the field of early cancer detection.

Another component of the paradigm shift meant bringing precision health to the forefront of his research and to the field of medicine more broadly. In a precision health-focused talk he gave to a group of conference attendees, Dr. Gambhir remarked on the tragedy of his son.

“What motivates me is knowing that if he’d been born 100 years from now, the tools of precision health could [have] possibly allowed him to live much, much longer,” he said. “I remain optimistic that the fundamental basic science we all continue to do [will] lead to new technologies that will help re-engineer our own bodies so we can detect disease early.”

In 2017, Dr. Gambhir determined that with recent advancements in biology and technology, he could formalize his approach more broadly. He helped to launch the Precision Health and Integrated Diagnostics Center at Stanford, a program that harnesses cross-disciplinary collaboration to prevent or stop disease early, ideally before it can substantially harm one’s health.

Born in India, Raised in Arizona

Dr. Gambhir was born in India and moved to Arizona with his family in 1969. As a teenager, he attended Arizona State University, graduating in 1983, when he was 20. With a bachelor’s degree in physics, Dr. Gambhir was accepted to the medical scientist training program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where eventually he completed a PhD program in biomathematics and also earned a medical degree. It was during this program that Dr. Gambhir began to develop a vision—one that drew from physics to power medicine.

In 1994, shortly after the completion of his MD/PhD program, Dr. Gambhir was recruited to the UCLA faculty by Michael Phelps, PhD, a pioneer of PET imaging and Director of the Crump Institute for Molecular Imaging at UCLA. By 2001, Dr. Gambhir was leading the Crump Institute at UCLA and was serving as Vice Chair of the Department of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology. Two years later, he and his family left Southern California and moved north, after Dr. Gambhir accepted a position at the Stanford School of Medicine as Head of the Nuclear Medicine Division.

Prolific Accomplishments and Inventions

Over his 17 years at Stanford University, Dr. Gambhir chaired the Department of Radiology, established and directed the Precision Health and Integrated Diagnostics Center, directed the Molecular Imaging Program at Stanford, and directed the Canary Center at Stanford for Cancer Early Detection. Dr. Gambhir mentored more than 150 postdoctoral scholars and graduate students throughout his career.

By any measure, his research developments, career accomplishments, and inventions were prolific. He coauthored nearly 700 peer-reviewed papers, and his research led to 40 patents and the establishment of several companies. He believed that basic research findings should be swiftly translated to the clinic if it could benefit patients. Under his leadership, faculty in the Radiology Department founded 21 companies.

Dr. Gambhir’s intense scrutiny of the molecular traces of disease and his efforts to design and iterate on detection technology always came back to one thing: his desire to make a tangible impact on patients.

“He would often start lab meetings by saying, ‘I want you all to remember why we’re here, and if anyone has forgotten, I want you to let me know and come over to the clinic with me, because…there are real people on the other side of this who we’re trying to help,’” recalled Michelle James, PhD, Assistant Professor of Radiology and one of Dr. Gambhir’s former lab members. 

Adapted from an original obituary written by Hanae Armitage, a science writer in the Office of Communications at Stanford University.