Project Violet is inspired by kids with rare or incurable diseases — and is powered by people like you
Violet was a feisty 11-year-old farm girl with bright red hair, a contagious smile and a huge love for nature, pets and people. She was also one of a few hundred children diagnosed each year with brainstem glioma, a rare, deadly and insidious inoperable tumor.
Bright, generous and fearless, Violet understood that she would die from her tumor — and she understood that to develop better treatments, doctors need to be able to learn more. That’s why before her death in October 2012, Violet asked that her brain be donated to science in hopes that it would help doctors create new, effective treatment options for others.
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That gift — along with similar donations from other pediatric brain tumor patients — is the inspiration behind Project Violet, an innovative research program developed by Dr. Jim Olson and colleagues from multiple disciplines at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Project Violet has one goal — to create a new class of drugs that effectively cures diseases that are currently considered incurable. Olson and colleagues focus on diseases that are often ignored by the pharmaceutical industry including rare diseases, childhood cancers, and neurological diseases.
Project Violet researchers have already had one big success: Tumor Paint. A "molecular flashlight" derived from the DNA of the Israeli death stalker scorpion, Tumor Paint chemically adheres to cancer cells and causes them to light up. Thousands of times more sensitive than MRI imagery, Tumor Paint enables surgeons to easily distinguish between deadly cancer cells and surrounding healthy tissue, making tumors more operable. After nearly a decade of development, human clinical trials have begun and the possibilities may extend well beyond helping patients like Violet.
“This is a drug we developed for pediatric brain cancer but now we’ve learned that it has clinical applications for breast, colon, lung, prostate and skin cancer,” he said. “It looks as though Tumor Paint could help up to 1 million cancer patients a year if it’s as successful in humans as it is in animals.”
But the miraculous material at the heart of Tumor Paint is just the beginning.
Every animal, every plant in nature has ways of protecting itself, Olson said. “We were impressed that scorpions have evolved amazing drugs, which led us to begin looking deeply into the drugs produced by other plants and animals,” he said. “These drugs are encoded in their DNA and have had millions of years to evolve.”
In addition to tapping the tiny specialized proteins known as “optimized peptides,” or “optides,” in scorpion venom, the Project Violet team is looking at drugs produced by potatoes, spiders, cone snails, sea slugs, horseshoe crabs, sunflowers and yes, even violets.
And they’ve invited the public along to help inspire and expedite their amazing discoveries.
Parents of Olson’s pediatric patients — past and present — have led the charge by raising funds to help support research for Tumor Paint. Now “citizen scientists” from around the world can take up the mantle and make donations — in any amount — to accelerate the development of drugs to treat and/or cure diseases once thought incurable. Forms of autism, rare genetic disorders and neurological diseases rank high on the list of unmet medical needs that might be ideal for Project Violet therapeutics.
“This is a worldwide effort,” said Olson of Project Violet. “And as our numbers grow, our power to have an impact grows.”
Innovative science, creative fundraising, tireless dedication and the faith and foresight of a feisty 11-year-old with a passion for life in all its forms are the elements that make Project Violet what it is today.
Together, let’s discover what it will mean for tomorrow.
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