The Science Behind Project Violet
The Project Violet Team looks at scans of brain tumors illuminated by Tumor Paint, which acts as a "molecular flashlight" by chemically adhering to cancer cells and causing them to light up. Thousands of times more sensitive than MRI imagery, Tumor Paint enables surgeons to easily distinguish between deadly cancer cells and the surrounding healthy tissue, making tumors more operable.
An amazing team of scientists from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, including Drs. Jim Olson, Roland Strong, Julian Simon, Patrick Paddison, and Eduardo Mendez, is searching for breakthrough disease treatments. With the support of Project Violet, these scientists and their colleagues are developing a fundamentally new class of anti-cancer compounds: molecules engineered to attack cancer cells without harming the healthy cells around them.
These new compounds, called optides, could dramatically improve on traditional chemotherapies. And their approach is potentially less expensive and more powerful than other next-generation techniques. Optides address one of cancer treatment's most vexing problems: destroying healthy tissue along with cancer cells. This can exact a heavy toll on patients, with many suffering such severe side effects that they must limit their chemotherapy dosage or stop treatment early. In contrast, optide molecules can be better instructed to bind to particular kinds of cancer cells, disabling only those cells. Optides can also be attached to chemotherapy drugs, transforming them into precision therapies that ignore healthy cells.
Optides: cancer’s natural enemy
The Project Violet team is working to tap tiny specialized proteins known as "optides" produced in plants and animals.
This innovative research uses nature as its guide. Many organisms produce tiny proteins, called optides, which are small enough, stable enough and specific enough to deliver cancer drugs. The team modifies these molecules to generate versions that zero in on cancer cells. Olson pioneered the clinical use of optides when he teamed up with researchers at Seattle Children's and the University of Washington to develop Tumor Paint — a drug that attaches to cancer cells and illuminates them, helping surgeons identify where cancers begin and end.
Now Fred Hutch scientists are spearheading an ambitious program to develop optides that target some of the most treatment-resistant malignancies: brain cancer, melanoma, breast cancer, and tumors of the neck and throat. These molecules are poised to spark a radical leap forward in cancer medicine.