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Seattle tumor paint doctor gets FDA approval

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The Seattle doctor working with scorpion venom in an effort to find a more effective treatment for brain tumors has received approval to start testing his “tumor paint” by the FDA.

Back in July, we introduced you to Dr. Jim Olson, who works out of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He’s a a man on a mission to cure kids of brain cancer.

He shares the story of his 11-year-old patient Violet, who knew she would die from a brain tumor and made him promise her something.

“Before she died she asked if we would take her brain at the time that she died and create research tools to share with other scientists around the world so that kids in the future wouldn’t have to do through what she did,” Olson said.

Ten years of hard work and many serendipitous discoveries later, he is one step closer to making that happen. Olson has received FDA approval for testing on humans his best threat against brain tumors: tumor paint.

“Tumor paint is a molecule that lights up cancer using a derivative of a scorpion toxin that delivers light to the cancer cells but not to the adjacent tissue around it,” Olson explained.

In the first human clinical trials, patients with an often-deadly form of brain cancer, Glioma (the same type Violet had), will be injected with tumor paint. He’s hoping for similar results to those seen in animals.

“The interesting thing is that tumor paint can’t be seen by our naked eye so it gets pseudo-colored onto a computer screen in what we see as beautiful green,” Olson said. “A green, glowing brain tumor.”

Tumor paint is supposed to work by detecting the exact borders of cancerous tumors, giving surgeons a better idea of tissue that needs to be cut out and healthy tissue to be left behind.

“Everybody wants to be the first to use it, everybody is clamoring to have their institution be the one that does the first clinical trials, and honestly most surgeons that we’ve talked to can very easily see the day when they would look back and say ‘I can’t believe we used to find cancer using our thumbs and our fingers trying to distinguish it from normal tissue’ when they see the images of this they can see it is going to revolutionize surgical oncology,” Olson said.

Though his work focuses on brain cancer, he hopes human clinical trials can show tumor paint is versatile.

“Breasts cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, skin cancer and a lot of other besides brain cancer, so we hope that we can help as many as a million patients a year,” Olson said.

While Olson is busy developing the promising tumor paint, he’s also worked on another gift to 11-year-old Violet. He started ProjectViolet.org, which raises funds for his research.

The recent fundraiser, the Violet Sessions, created by Seattle musicians, raised more than $11,000.

With that, and FDA approval at his hands, he feels one step closer to fulfilling his promise to Violet.

“This is an important step but it’s one of 10,000 steps. When we see tumors lighting up and we have surgeons coming out and saying ‘Oh my gosh this is, I can do a much better job than I used to be able to do,’ then I will know that that promise has been fulfilled. In the meantime, it’s full on let’s keep working,” Olson said.

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