What Are Scorpion Venom And Brain Tumors Doing In A Lab Together?

Jul 28, 2014

After removing a tumor, surgeons are confronted with an unfortunate reality: They can’t be sure they got it all. It can be difficult to distinguish between normal tissue and cancerous cells while operating.

Dr. Jim Olson, a researcher at Fred Hutchinson Research Center and oncologist at the University of Washington, was inspired by his young patients to find a way to ensure that surgeons didn’t miss anything.

The image on the left is a piece of lung tissue that contains a tumor viewed under normal white light. The right image shows the same piece of tissue after Tumor Paint has been applied. Here it's viewed under infrared light. Areas that are more red and yellow show a concentration of the paint, which means they are more likely to be cancerous.
The image on the left is a piece of lung tissue that contains a tumor viewed under normal white light. The right image shows the same piece of tissue after Tumor Paint has been applied. Here it's viewed under infrared light. Areas that are more red and yellow show a concentration of the paint, which means they are more likely to be cancerous.
Credit Courtesy of Julie Novak Blaze Bioscience

“We’ve got to find a way to make these things light up so that we can see what we’re doing while we’re in the operating room,” Olson said on KUOW’s The Record. “Not relying on our eyes and our fingers and our thumbs.”

Olson has been on a decade-long quest to create a “tumor paint” – something that would allow surgeons to not only see the true borders of a cancerous area, but other areas outside the margins that may also be cancerous.

Now Olson and his colleagues have a product that they believe will revolutionize cancer treatment, derived from an unlikely source: scorpion venom. But, to the doctor’s relief, they don’t have to farm a bunch of the stinging arthopods. “The cool thing is we never touch a scorpion, we never touch scorpion venom. In this day and age all we need is the DNA sequence,” Olson said.

The tumor paint is undergoing a human clinical trial in Brisbane, Australia. Due to Federal Drug Administration rules, Olson can’t speak directly to its progress.

But it’s clear the doctor has a lot of hope in the product, especially since his work took an even more personal turn. In 2008, his mother had surgery to remove skin cancer from her nose. Last year he said she came back for a check-up and found that not all the cancer had been removed, that it had spread along a nerve to other parts of her face and brain.

Olson said she is doing well now after needing “extensive and horrifying” treatment to fight back against the cancer again.

“To be able to prevent something like that is exactly the dream behind this whole program,” he said.