Fred Hutch doctor revolutionizing cancer treatment with 'Tumor Paint'

by: Michelle Millman Updated:

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SEATTLE - At Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Dr. Jim Olson is determined to save some of the most vulnerable people living with cancer: children. He's a pediatric oncologist who has developed a revolutionary compound to help surgeons see a cancerous tumor inside someone's body. He calls it Tumor Paint.

When Tumor Paint is injected into the body, it illuminates cancerous tumor cells to a bright, vivid green. Once a tumor is glowing, surgeons can see exactly what to remove, and they can preserve the remaining healthy tissue inside the patient.

Right now, the method is being tested in dozens of children and adults who are all fighting different types of cancer. If Tumor Paint gets FDA approval, oncologists worldwide will be able to tackle a cancer diagnosis very differently than they do today.

"I'm looking forward to the day when you can look at a kid and say, 'The good news is, it's only cancer. You didn't break your leg.' I would love to be at that point. It's a lofty goal. I'm not afraid of that goal, and I'm happy to be part of that," he said.

In the past year Olson has seen four different cases where surgeons thought they'd removed someone's brain tumor, only to discover later, that a large piece was left behind. He said we are still in the Stone Age of surgery, and he thinks his Tumor Paint can change that.

"Surgeons, particularly brain tumor surgeons, and many others spend a huge amount of time trying to figure out exactly where the cancer begins and where it ends," Olson said. "I take care of kids with brain tumors and our goal is to get out all the cancer and to leave in all the normal brain."

When the cancer and the brain look exactly alike, and they feel exactly alike, it's almost impossible to do that, Olson said. There are many times that portions of the cancerous cells get left behind. The remaining cancer could ultimately claim the life of a patient, if it's resistant to chemotherapy or radiation. In other scenarios, large pieces of healthy brain cells could be removed unintentionally, leaving the patient with potential deficits in the way they think or learn.

"So the goal here is really to eliminate cancer surgically to the extent that you can preserve the person intact as much as you can," Olson said.

Tumor Paint is the product of more than a decade of research at Fred Hutch, pioneered by Dr. Olson and licensed by Blaze Bioscience. After the death of a young girl in 2004, a neurosurgeon resident asked Olson for permission to run more tests and analyze the data. Six weeks of trial-and-error later, they had a "eureka moment" in their Fred Hutch lab. A group of researchers at the University of Alabama-Birmingham was studying a scorpion molecule in brain tumor cells.

"I said to him, 'Let's take that molecule, ingest a fluorescent tag to it, and inject it into the mouse that had a human cancer growing in its back.' We did that, and an hour after we injected it the tumor was glowing bright green and the rest of the mouse wasn't glowing," Olson said. "We had two grown men in white lab coats dancing in the halls of Fred Hutch."

They were a couple of dancing doctors who were celebrating what could be one of Seattle's biggest scientific breakthroughs. That molecule originates from the DNA strand in the scorpion known as the "death stalker" scorpion, native to the deserts of northern Africa and the Middle East. However, Olson and his team have never taken anything from a death stalker scorpion. Instead, they use a computer model to replicate the scorpion's DNA, and then alter what they have so their version of the molecule can light up the cancerous cells.

"A lot of times I get emails from people saying, 'I have 300,000 scorpions for you. Where can I send them?'" Olson said. "I have to ask them to please stop, we just use the DNA sequence and we get it off the computer and we learn from that how to make molecules."

Inside Olson's Fred Hutch laboratory, his research team has modified thousands of molecules that were originally found in other plants and animals. He discourages everyone on his team from keeping their research secret.

"We will tell anybody about our work," he said. "We will share our brightest ideas. If somebody wants to steal our ideas, that's great, because it might actually help a cancer patient get something faster. So I don't worry about competition. I thrive on it."

In fact, Olson is already excited about the next stage in his Tumor Paint research. Instead of delivering light to cancer, he and his team are working to deliver the actual chemotherapy or other toxin directly to the cancerous tumor and bypass the rest of the body. They want to make cancer go away without the negative side effects patients usually experience when their entire bodies are treated with chemotherapy.

His work is funded through Project Violet, a citizen science initiative that humbly began with support from a patient's family and a chili cook-off. To date, it has raised millions of dollars to fund the research done by Olson and his team.

The Michigan native said he's right where he should be. He wanted to be a family doctor and serve his own community after medical school, but he was later drawn to oncology and after a residence at Seattle Children's in 1991, he stayed. His love of long bike rides, kayaking, hiking and running throughout the Pacific Northwest helps him deal with the emotions of treating children with cancer.

"I let myself love every one of these kids," he said. "I don't put up an emotional wall to try and protect my feelings because if I did that, that wall would be there the rest of my life as well, and honestly, I believe we're becoming a family the day that we meet. We go through the rough times and the good times together."