When Dr. Jim Olson finished his university studies more than two decades ago, he was consumed by an important question: Would it be possible to light up a cancer cell?
If so, Olson suspected it could improve the results of many cancer surgeries. When surgeons remove a tumor, it can be hard to identify where the cancer cells start and end. This is especially true for brain tumors, where leaving behind part of a tumor – or cutting too far into the surrounding tissue – can have devastating consequences.
To overcome this problem, Olson worked with researchers at Seattle Children’s and the University of Washington to develop an innovative “tumor paint” – a drug that finds and attaches to tumor cells, illuminating them to show surgeons exactly where to cut. The experimental technique has been shown to illuminate brain, prostate, breast, colon, skin and other cancers and is now advancing to human clinical trials. Olson’s goal is for the technique to spark such dramatic improvement that we will look back and consider it barbaric that we ever did surgery without such guidance.
This breakthrough is only one part of Olson’s ambitious push to improve the lives of children and adults with brain cancer. His research focuses on developing new ways to remove brain tumors, finding new treatments for tumors that have few therapy options and identifying new uses for existing drugs.
Olson and his colleagues are developing a fundamentally new class of anti-cancer compounds – molecules engineered to specifically attack cancerous cells while leaving healthy cells untouched. These new compounds, called "optides," promise to improve on traditional chemotherapies, which often destroy healthy tissue alongside the cancerous cells they're meant to target. And Olson's approach, which could be applied to a wide range of cancers, is less expensive and more effective than other next-generation techniques.
Another one of Olson’s initiatives aims to unravel a notoriously difficult question: How and why do tumors become resistant to drugs? To answer this – and give new hope to patients whose cancers don’t respond to drugs – Olson and his colleagues have developed an innovative way to study how individual tumors evolve.
By removing tumors from human patients and incubating them in mice, Olson’s team can closely monitor those tumors and identify exactly when they become drug resistant. The team is using state-of-the-art DNA sequencing techniques to understand the genetic changes that spur this drug resistance. And they are using their findings to pursue new strategies for disarming drug-resistant cells.
While the research focuses on brain cancer, its lessons could provide a foothold for attacking many other cancers.
“My work is driven by an urgency to make a difference in patients’ lives,” Olson says, “and all of these projects are directed at that goal.”
Project Violet and TEDxSeattle
In August, 2013, Olson and colleagues at Fred Hutch launched Project Violet, a citizen science initiative that is using crowd funding to enlist the help of the community to develop a fundamentally new class of anti-cancer compounds derived from scaffolds of nature – chemical templates from organisms such as violets, scorpions and sunflowers – to attack cancer cells while leaving healthy cells untouched.
The ultimate goal is to develop highly targeted treatments that kill the cancer while sparing patients from the toxic side effects of chemotherapy such as hair loss and nausea. Project Violet builds on Olson’s successful optides research.
You can watch Olson's presentation to TEDxSeattle about his research and Project Violet:
PopTech: Dr. Jim Olson gets a standing ovation after speaking about Project Violet on World Cancer Day.
WIRED: The story behind the development of Tumor Paint and discoveries in optide research.
Listen to Joe Palca's series about Project Violet from "Joe's Big Idea" featured in Morning Edition.
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