Project Violet

Our research is inspired by a bright, joyful, 11-year-old girl named Violet, who offered to donate her brain to science before succumbing to a rare tumor. With the singular aim of curing brain cancers that are currently considered inoperable, we created Project Violet. Combining the strengths of the extraordinary clinical research at Fred Hutch and the patient care at Seattle Children’s Hospital, our team seeks to identify advanced therapeutics for children with brain cancer and speed them into clinical trials. Our work is fueled by the donations of citizen scientists and affected families, whose generosity funds our efforts to cure disease and save lives.

Inspiration Behind Project Violet

Tumor Paint

Project Violet researchers have already achieved a remarkable success: a "molecular flashlight" called Tumor Paint. Derived from the DNA of the Israeli death stalker scorpion, Tumor Paint chemically adheres to cancer cells and causes them to glow. It is thousands of times more sensitive than MRI imagery, enabling surgeons to distinguish easily between deadly cancer cells and surrounding healthy tissue.

Tumor Paint makes tumors more operable and reduces the risks associated with surgery, ensuring the entire tumor is removed and helping surgeons leave healthy brain tissue intact.

After a decade of research, clinical trials show promise not only for brain cancer but also for breast, colon, lung, prostate, and skin cancer. If approved by the FDA, Tumor Paint has the potential to help up to one million cancer patients per year.

Xray of brain tumors illuminated by tumor paint
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.
Sunflowers in a field
The Project Violet team is working to tap tiny specialized proteins known as "optides" produced in plants and animals.

Optides: Relying on Nature’s Defenses

Optides are engineered from naturally occurring mini-proteins, or peptides, that function as “drugs” for organisms as diverse as cone snails, scorpions, sea slugs, and sunflowers. Evolved over millions of years, these peptides are encoded in the DNA of the organisms they help protect. Using nature as our guide, we aim to develop a new class of anti-cancer compounds by engineering optides (optimized peptides) to attack cancer cells while sparing the healthy cells around them. These new compounds would dramatically improve on traditional chemotherapies that destroy both cancer cells and healthy tissue and often cause severe side effects.

Looking to capitalize on the success of Tumor Paint, the Project Violet research team has engineered advanced techniques to identify, screen, and optimize molecules that show promise for treating rare cancers – like the one that took Violet’s life – and other diseases that pharmaceutical companies won’t pursue. Where once our team could create 12 drug candidates per year, we can now produce up to 10,000 in three weeks. Our goal is to share these candidates with other scientists, collaborating on diseases that are currently considered incurable.

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Bringing Light Video

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Our Inspiring Patients

A little dancer who donated tissue for new tumor treatments. A young man who gave back to the lab that helped save his life. Read about some of the courageous kids who inspire Project Violet’s “citizen science.”

Violet O'Dell

Violet O'Dell

Jess O' Dell knew her 10-year-old daughter, Violet, had two important things to say to Dr. Jim Olson during an appointment on an early summer day: "She said, 'You can say anything to me. Don't be afraid to tell me because I'm not afraid,'" she recalls. "And then she asked him: 'Am I going to die?'"

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Anjuli Jacobs

Anjuli Jacobs

It started with little things. “She was really pale and not herself and, out of the blue, she developed night terrors,” said Marcia Jacobs about the symptoms her daughter Anjuli began to experience in May 2000, six months before the little girl’s fourth birthday.

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Max Hanson

Max Hanson

It’s not just any 18-year-old who spends part of summer vacation working in a cutting-edge brain cancer research lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, but Seattle Preparatory School senior Max Hanson isn’t just any student: He has had firsthand experience with brain cancer.

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Molly McKenna

Molly McKenna

The emergency room doctor pulled Tim McKenna and his wife, Mary Ellen, into a small equipment room — a closet, really — to give them the news. “We were at the ER for hours while they did a CT scan, then the doctor said, ‘I need to see you in this next room,’” said Tim McKenna, a 55-year-old architect from Springfield, Massachusetts.

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Project Violet Leadership

Jim Olson, M.D., Ph.D., Director, Project Violet

Dr. Jim Olson, a researcher and pediatric oncologist, is developing innovative approaches to improve treatment for patients with brain tumors. He has appointments at Fred Hutch, the University of Washington and Seattle Children's.

Chris Mehlin, Ph.D., Director, Therapeutic Peptide Program

Dr. Chris Mehlin earned his doctorate in pathobiology in 1998 from the University of Washington, where he studied the body’s immune system response to infection and HIV biology. Mehlin is an expert in drug discovery: finding the molecules that treat and cure disease by interacting with the body’s cells and proteins. He brings to the optide team a wealth of knowledge gained from a career in academic and commercial biotechnology to develop and validate new drugs.

Colin Correnti, Ph.D., Director, Protein Sciences

Dr. Colin Correnti received his doctorate in 2011 from the Biological Physics, Structure and Design Program at the University of Washington. As a doctoral student, he studied protein structure determination and developed the Daedalus protein expression system currently employed to make optides. An avid researcher with more than a decade of experience at Fred Hutch and UW, he is ideally suited to engage the labs and core resources at both institutions.


Classroom Resources

Discover ideas and resources to bring science and exploration to the classroom through Project Violet. 

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