Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines, or MRIs, are often used in identifying the location and approximate size of tumors in the brain and other body parts. However, during surgery, it can be quite difficult to locate the tumor the MRI identified. Often, cancer cells will remain even after an extensive surgery. Many doctors have also stated that even when they can locate the tumor, it is often hard to distinguish healthy cells from tumorous cells during the actual surgical procedure, resulting in removal of healthy cells with the tumor. Since doctors cannot accurately locate or remove tumors due to limited imaging technology currently available, complications can occur during and after surgery. These complications can range from incomplete tumor removal to even severe brain damage (NPR, “Why Painting Tumors Could Make Brain Surgeons Better,” 09.12.13).
Pediatric neuro-oncologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital Dr. James Olson, who is also a well-known cancer researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has spent the last decade trying to figure out how to limit the number of medical problems that occur post-surgery and allow doctors to more precisely locate and eradicate tumors during surgery.
Although major funding groups orginally denied Olson funding for research, support for Olson’s research has been unwavering: his patients as well as their friends, family and allies alone raised $9 million to fund him (CNN, “Tumor Paint: Changing the ways surgeons fight cancer,” 11.13.13). His decade-long creation, colloquially called tumor paint, has now become a reality and is currently being evaluated in FDA approved clinical trials at the Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Olson and his collaborators’ tumor paint is made from chlorotoxin, a protein derived from scorpion venom. Chlorotoxin targets the chloride receptors on the surface of tumor cells. Chlorotoxin also contains a non-toxic chemical that makes the cells fluoresce when they are exposed to near-infrared light (Popular Science, “Glowing ‘Tumor Paint” shows surgeons where to cut,” 04.8.15).
What does this mean exactly? When tumor paint is injected into a patient’s veins, it travels through the body, across the blood-brain barrier, and settles in the tumor. All the doctor needs to do is shine near-infrared light on a brain region, and the tumor starts to glow a bright green color. This in turn allows doctors to more easily identify and remove the tumors and reduce the risk of medical complications. (NPR, “Doctors Test Tumor Paint In People,” 4.8.15)
Dr. Chirag Patil, a surgeon at Cedars Sinai Medical Center where the clinical trials are taking place, has been mesmerized by this novel creation, especially because the paint can be injected anywhere in the body and will only attach to tumors. Patil has noted about the innovation that it’s, “a concept neurosurgeons have probably been dreaming about for 50 years.” (NPR, “Doctors Test Tumor Paint In People,” 4.8.15)
Recalling his first experience with the paint, Patil added, “The first case we did was a deep tumor. So with the camera, we couldn’t really shine it into this deep small cavity. But when we took that first piece out and we put it on the table. And the question was, ‘Does it glow?’ And when we saw that it glows, it was just one of those moments… ’Wow, this works.’“ While the focus of tumor paint has been on brain tumors, research has shown that the paint attacks multiple types of cancer tumors including breast, skin, prostate and colon cancers. However, the clinical trials are currently only including brain and spinal tumors.
While Olson and his team are credited with this novel paint, his team is not alone in trying to create better ways to remove tumors. Teams in Germany and San Diego have also been trying to create substances that cause certain cells to glow. Knowing this adds another interesting aspect to Olson’s research, for he has an “open door policy.” Olson insists that his data and research be made available to any researcher who wants to access it. He hopes his work will inspire others with their research and bettering the world. “We’re creating drug candidates… that could fundamentally change the world,” Olson says. “We’re throwing motives of profit or biotech building to the wind. Let’s do what’s right for the greatest number of people.” His attitude is hard to come by, with intense competition in the field of pharmaceutical development. (CNN, Tumor Paint: Changing the ways surgeons fight cancer, 11.13.13) Perhaps this is because Blaze Bioscience, the company that produces tumor paint, is actually founded by Olson himself. Nonetheless, his stance on collaboration and sharing of research is something that I find very rare and respectable.
Many might also find it amazing that Olson dedicated a decade of his life to this discovery, but what many don’t know is that while Dr. James Olson was at the University of Michigan, he developed a molecule that turned tumor cells radioactive. It turns out that this paint has been on Olson’s mind for much longer than expected, and in reflecting on his discovery at Michigan to his success with tumor paint now he said, “You can say I’ve had a chip on my shoulder for the last 25 years.”
Olson’s dedication to his work is admirable to say the least and is expected to change countless lives, preventing unnecessary brain damage and the removal of all tumor cells during surgery. Olson however remains humble about his work, but also knows that this paint is about to change the field of surgery drastically, saying, “In a matter of 10 years, surgeons will look back and say, ‘I can’t believe we used to remove (tumors) by using our eyes and our fingers and our thumbs.’ “ Olson plans on continuing his research to better surgical procedures and help pediatric cancer patients. I can’t wait to see what his team develops next.
—Delaney Fischer is a neuroscience major.