Making Tumors Glow

While Dr. James Olson was at the University of Michigan, he developed a molecule that turned tumor cells radioactive.

When his professor asked him what he wanted to do with his life, he said he wanted to “deliver light to cancer." In essence, he wanted to make cancer cells shine so they could be more easily detected.

“He said, ‘Okay, Buck Rogers, what are you really going to do?’” Olson, now a pediatric hermato-oncologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital and cancer researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC), told Healthline. “You can say I’ve had a chip on my shoulder for the last 25 years.”

Blaze Bioscience, the company Olson founded, filed paper work in Australia Wednesday to begin human trials on Tumor Paint, a molecule that causes tumor cells to glow.

The goal is to help surgeons navigate difficult tumor-removing operations in real-time, as well as to guide new therapies for brain, breast, prostate, skin, colon, and other cancers.

“We’re hoping with this Tumor Paint tool that they’ll be able to see tumors that the surgeon wasn’t able to get,” he said. “My goal is that surgeons will be able to remove the tumor and give patients a better outcome.”

‘Two Grown Men Dancing Around in Lab Coats’

Dr. Richard Ellenbogen performed a 12-hour tumor surgery on a 17-year-old girl’s brain. Even with 25 years' experience as a Harvard-trained surgeon, he left some of the tumor behind because of the sheer difficulty in determining what was healthy brain matter and what was cancerous.

He and Olson served on the same tumor board, and they discussed the need to differentiate healthy and dangerous cells. After six weeks of nightly arguments, they found the right compound in the most unlikely of places: scorpion venom.

“Scorpions have had millions of years to optimize the drug-like properties,” Olson said. “Only the best survived.”

A protein in the venom, chlorotoxin, attaches itself to the surface of a cancerous cell. Meanwhile, a dye infiltrates the cell and turns fluorescent when light shines on it.

The researchers grew a human brain tumor on the back of a mouse and injected it with the venom compound. Within an hour, the tumor glowed when a flashlight was shone on it.

“This was the first big adventure that worked the first time,” Olson said. “You’ve never seen such happy men. There were two grown men dancing around in lab coats.”

Over the past 10 years, their experiments have shown consistent results across many types of cancer. Researchers even tested Tumor Paint on 27 pet dogs that needed surgery to remove tumors.

“In the past, they would have had to amputate [the dog's] leg, but in recent cases we’ve been able to save the leg,” Olson said.

One limitation of Tumor Paint is that it can’t be used on cancer cells deeper in the body because it requires direct light to illuminate the tumor.

Inspired by Patients

Olson said numerous patients have inspired him to focus on fighting brain cancers.

“We’ve had people in their 30s and 40s, the prime of their lives, given only months to live and they would sit with us for a day to help with research,” he said. “They were volunteering in experiments that couldn't help them, but they knew they could help others.”

One of those patients was Violet, a girl who had brain stem glioma. She donated her body to science so that other children wouldn't have to go through what she did. 

That girl is the namesake of Project Violet, an ongoing research initiative that explores new ways to fight cancer using nature-based therapies. (Hear Olson explain more about Project Violet in his TEDx talk from earlier this year.)

The project is primarily funded by donations. People can choose to "adopt" drugs to fund and so help guide the focus of research on initiatives like Tumor Paint. To learn more, visit the Project Violet website.

“We’re now building on that foundation, and we’ll be doing more dancing in lab coats,” Olson said.

Image courtesy of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

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