Sanjiv “Sam” Gambhir, a giant in molecular imaging, died on July 18 of cancer at the age of 57. He was a professor and department head at Stanford University and is best known for his work developing tracers to identify abnormal cell activity using positron emission tomography (PET).
“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,” Stanford School of Medicine Dean Lloyd Minor says in a statement. “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.”
Born in India, Gambhir immigrated to Arizona as a young child and graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in physics at age 20. From there, he attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), getting his medical degree as well as a PhD in biomathematics.
After graduating, he joined the UCLA lab of Michael Phelps, codeveloper of PET. Looking back on their time together, Phelps recounts to Stanford University that Gambhir was so “relentless” that he would sometimes sleep in the PET scanner. Through Gambhir’s research, the field began to identify “reporter genes,” which would find cells with abnormal activity.
Gambhir joined the staff at Stanford Medical School in 2001. He remained until his death, having served as the division chief of the molecular imaging program and a professor of radiology.
Gambhir’s research in early cancer detection took on an unexpected personal meaning when his son, Milan, was diagnosed with the same type of cancer he had been studying: glioblastoma. After nearly two years, his son succumbed to the disease in 2015 at the age of 16.
“What motivates me is knowing if he’d been born 100 years from now, the tools of precision health could [have] possibly allowed him to live much, much longer,” Gambhir later said at a health conference, according to Stanford. “I remain optimistic that the fundamental basic science that we all continue to do [will] lead to new technologies that will help reengineer our own bodies so that we can detect disease early.”
In recent years, Gambhir focused on minimally invasive diagnostic techniques, aiming to find specific biomarkers that could identify disease early on, including a 2015 proof-of-concept study that identified tumors using microbubble biomarkers.
Throughout his career, he authored more than 650 papers and dozens of patents. He mentored students, served on editorial boards of high-profile journals, such as Science Translational Medicine, and received scores of awards and accolades from colleagues and professional organizations. Most recently, he was given the 2019 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Marie Sklodowska-Curie Award for excellence in nuclear plasma sciences and engineering.
“He was easily the most highly accomplished alum I have ever met, but also a completely modest and unassuming person,” Peter Bennett, chair of the physics department at ASU, tells ASU Now. “We at ASU and Stanford have lost a friend and colleague, while the world has lost a truly exceptional scientist.”
He is survived by his wife, Aruna Gambhir.