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.
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.
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.
“My work is driven by an urgency to make a difference in patients’ lives,” Olson says.
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.
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.”