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Dr. Jim Olson discovered a protein found in scorpion venom, hooked with, for lack of a better term, a "flashlight" molecule that could make tumors glow. (Project Violet Facebook page)

Scorpion venom, crowdfunding is the lifeblood of Project Violet's cancer research

You've been told many things cause cancer. You've been told many ways to help ward off cancer. It's unlikely you've been told scorpion venom will help cure cancer.

When Dr. Jim Olson treats children with cancer, he doesn't allow himself to have boundaries.

"I let myself love every one of these kids as if it's my own child. So, I don't put up emotional barriers. I absolutely have some rough times," says Olson.

Olson, a brain tumor researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, says about half of their child patients die.

"What motivates me, I think, is that we are going to actually have therapeutics that will keep kids from dying in the future," says Olson.

The future is an experiment of sorts that he created: ProjectViolet.org. It was born through the selfless act of a very young patient.

"Project Violet was inspired by a girl that I took care of who was, at the time that she passed way from her brain tumor, 11 years old. She knew from the early days from our conversations that she was going to die from her tumor. I've never had a child survive that cancer in 23 years that I've been practicing," he says.

Project Violet now acts as a crowd-sourcing revenue stream to fund his research team. So, instead of designing experiments that were considered "safe" and would win the favor of federal grants, the lifeblood of cancer research, Olson would go radical and crowd-fund his cancer research.

This way he could do exactly what Project Violet is meant to do.

"If the public pays for this platform then the public has a seat at the table, it's less likely that these libraries that we develop would be sold off to a single pharmaceutical company and no longer available to be used for rare diseases or diseases that are not a blockbuster hit for that particular pharmaceutical company," says Olson.

Through what he says is "luck," Dr. Olson's Project Violet took off and it worked.

He discovered a protein found in scorpion venom, hooked with, for lack of a better term, a "flashlight" molecule that could make tumors glow.

Olson calls it "tumor paint" and surgeons can use it as a way to discern the exact boarders of a cancerous mass.

"When they shine the laser beam on it, it gives back a beautiful green glow that they see as an overlay over the typical scene that they see," says Olson.

In animal trials, tumor paint helped a veterinarian discover cancer that would otherwise go undetected.

"(A family) brought their dog in thinking that they had a single breast cancer and surgeons thought they had a single breast cancer. When we used tumor paint we saw four or five other spots that were not immediately adjacent to it but a little ways away and I think that in those cases if you had done a surgery, even if you had clean margins that had no cancer cells, the tumor paint would have told you that there were other sites of cancer nearby."

Tumor paint is now being used in human trials in Australia.

Project Violet was a little girl's wish and is now the cutting-edge of cancer search. She gave Dr. Olson her brain and he gave her a promise.

"Before she died, she asked that we would take her brain at the time that she died and create research tools to share with other scientists from around the world so that future kids would not have to go through what she did," says Olson.

Seattle bands also got together to create "The Violet Sessions" live album to raise money for his research. The Kickstarter campaign went live Monday.


Colleen O'Brien, KIRO Radio Morning News Anchor
Colleen O'Brien anchors The Morning News on KIRO Radio, weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m.
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