Better Diagnostics

To help detect diseases early, Tom Carroll is creating home-based diagnostic tests.

Tom Carroll photo by Dunja Opalko
Photo by Dunja Opalko

Summer 2023
By Jenny West Rozelle '00

“There’s all this cool innovation happening in the academic setting, but it’s taking years to get to patients,” Tom Carroll ’16 says in frustration. This lag between innovation and patient care affects treatment — and lives — and it’s a concern that has motivated Carroll to co-found a company for home-based diagnostic testing.

Carroll, who double majored in biochemistry and classical studies and was the recipient of a Rhodes scholarship, has seen health concerns hit close to home. “A number of people in my family have had cancer. We’re all BRCA carriers,” he says, referring to two genes known to correspond to a higher risk of certain cancers. Also, for most of his life, he lived with a bicuspid aortic valve — a heart condition that was repaired during an operation in 2019. “At the cardiology clinic, I felt lucky because I was always doing relatively well. Other patients were very sick. I felt this drive to help people whose conditions were worse than mine.”

Spurred by this determination, Carroll spent five years at the University of Oxford’s branch of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, where he worked on a clinical trial for esophageal cancer. “We identified a set of biomarkers that could predict which esophageal cancer patients would do well on a new treatment called immunotherapy and which patients might not benefit from it,” says Carroll.

Since early detection is lifesaving and there’s a lot at stake, they plan to expand to screen for diseases such as cervical, prostate and bladder cancers.

At Oxford, he met Luca Springer, another Rhodes scholar who shared his frustration that many such research findings take too long to filter into public use. “I came out of my clinical trial experience motivated to do more, so I decided to pivot into early detection and diagnostics,” says Carroll. In 2021, he and Springer started their own company, Cleancard, to create diagnostic tests that could be used by patients at home with a simple urine sample.

For the first application of their technology, Cleancard is focusing on sexually transmitted diseases — specifically chlamydia and gonorrhea. “Only 20% of people in my age bracket are testing like they should,” Carroll explains. He believes that a home-based diagnostic method “could bring testing rates up significantly.”

Carroll’s days are often filled with lab work in Cleancard’s London laboratory space, where they make synthetic versions of disease targets and use their technology to develop accurate tests, even with a low concentration of disease in samples. Since early detection is lifesaving and there’s a lot at stake, they plan to expand to screen for diseases such as cervical, prostate and bladder cancers.

“Because blood-based tests and biopsies are the norm for cancer testing, there’s been no big push to see what you can get from urine. We want to work on that,” Carroll says.

Making medical discoveries inspires Carroll. “What gets me excited about research is being the first one to see something. In my past work, that was seeing new biomarkers that could impact patient treatments. I also get that with Cleancard — we’ve developed a method that previously has not existed. That gets my mind whirring about the possibilities.”