The Israeli biotechnology startup SpotitEarly, which is developing a ground-breaking technique for the early detection of cancer, has completed a $6.2 million seed funding round led by Hanaco Ventures. They are now on their way to completing clinical research.

Save a life with man’s best friend

Unfortunately, we all know someone who has been affected by cancer. But did you know that early cancer detection, preferably prior to symptoms, is critical to the recovery chances of patients? Because early detection can vastly affect patient outcomes, approximately $150 billion is invested in various cancer detection tests each year. But, even so, only 54% of cancer patients successfully have their cancer detected early. The main reason this number is far from ideal is that detection tests aren't accessible, they are often expensive, and are not versatile– meaning they only cover one type of cancer. Moreover, many of these detection tests can be very uncomfortable to the patient, as they are often invasive and unpleasant, which makes patients keener on ignoring general guidelines and screenings.

Relatively new research shows that cancerous tumours in their early stages secrete molecules carrying volatile organic compounds into the blood and then into the respiratory system. This secretion has an odour, unique to the type of cancer it is. It is this odour that has allowed a new type of early detection test– one that involved dogs. Dogs can detect these odours in a fraction of a second, and their sensitivity to the scents has been proven in several studies to be greater than those of any medical tests or devices currently in use. The Israeli startup SpotitEarly is harnessing that ability.

SpotitEarly has developed a simple and inexpensive test for the early detection of a variety of cancers, based on a combination of AI and the advanced olfactory abilities of dogs. How does it work? The screening comes down to wearing a designated mask and breathing into it for the duration of 5 minutes, which can all be done at a patient’s residence, screening institute, or clinic. When complete, the mask is then placed in a hermetically sealed package and sent back to the company’s lab. The samples are then inserted into sniffing ports within the lab where the trained dogs quickly go through them. The dogs are trained to scan the breath samples in a manner experienced by the dogs as a stimulating playtime. The scanning process for each sample takes only a few seconds and each sample is scanned by several dogs in a unique method. In a case where a dog identifies an odour associated with a positive cancer sample, they provide a clear indication. The whole process is analyzed in real-time by a technological system, designed by the company including dynamic sensors, AI systems and algorithms aimed to maximize the lab's capabilities and the prediction accuracy. Meaning, whilst scanning the samples, hundreds of signals are received and the dogs’ actions, behavioural and physiological reactions are analyzed in real-time. As a result, the system provides lab results at high accuracy levels. These simple and inexpensive test results have the power to detect several cancers, from lung to prostate, to breast and colon. SpotitEarly’s method holds the potential to save lives or alternatively spare long months of stress and anxiety while waiting for scanning results for healthy patients.

SpotitEarly dogs at work

In a conversation with Geektime, Roi Ophir, Chairman of SpotitEarly, divulged the company dynamic, and why they chose to tackle cancer. He stated that “Since adherence to screening guidelines and early detection can result in 9 out of 10 people surviving cancer, while only 1 out of 10 would survive if it was detected late, making a frictionless early detection test will allow more people to screen for cancer on a routine basis, and therefore save millions of lives. We are solving a significant humanity problem. When we realized the size of this problem, which kills over 10 million people a year, we felt that we could make a real impact; we could combine multidisciplinary skills with technology to form a feasible solution that will save lives. This is what motivates us.”

Currently, SpotitEarly is in the process of one of the most extensive clinical studies in this field led by the Sourasky (Ichilov) Medical Center in Tel Aviv and the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, to prove the test’s efficacy. In the preliminary phase, SpotitEarly studied 700 verified samples and showed that the test has very high sensitivity in detecting the presence of a variety of cancers, even in the early stages. Moreover, SpotitEarly’s system makes it possible to run about one million tests per year out of just one laboratory. Furthermore, not only are the results available within a few days, the cost of the test is estimated at about 20 percent of the cost of early detection tests currently in use.

The capital from the seed round will be used to complete more clinical research and further develop the product. SpotitEarly hopes to be able to detect more types of cancer in the future, while also being able to specify which cancer type is present.

The company was founded in 2020 by four friends who bootstrapped the development of the PoC that led to the seed funding: Roi Ophir (Chairman), Ohad Sharon (CSO), Udi Bobrovsky (COO) and Ariel Ben Dayan (CEO). Ben Dayan was formerly the commander of Israel’s prominent Oketz Canine Unit. It is there that he discovered the true abilities of man’s best friends, which he and his team try to harness at SpotitEarly each day.