Scorpion venom may help fight cancer

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The audience at Pop! Tech’s annual conference rose to its feet as Dr. Jim Olson wrapped up his talk on Tumor Paint.

“In this world where stadiums are named after rich corporations, where buildings are named after wealthy donors, I wanted to name the most exciting science that I’ve ever participated in after her,” he said, referring to Violet, a patient of his who donated her brain to science shortly before dying.

It’s unclear if the audience’s standing ovation last month was aimed more at Olson’s innovations or his passion. Perhaps it was for the children he has treated — the ones whose faces flashed across the screen as he spoke about losing the fight against cancer. Or maybe their applause was for those kids’ parents, who have raised $9 million to fund Olson’s research.

They believe in him. It’s hard not to after listening to the unassuming way he plans to change medicine.

A pediatric neuro-oncologist, Olson says he has spent too many years explaining why a surgeon may not remove all of a patient’s cancer or, instead, accidentally take part of a child’s healthy brain.

That’s why he and his team created Tumor Paint, a product designed to illuminate cancer cells in the body, helping surgeons distinguish them from healthy tissue.

“The key to brain surgery is to remove the bad stuff and leave the good stuff inside,” says Dr. Rich Ellenbogen, a neurosurgeon who worked to develop Tumor Paint with Olson. “However, it’s not that easy.”

While cancerous cells may glow on an MRI, they look remarkably similar to healthy cells during an operation. Only experience — and luck — guide surgeons as they try to remove the deadly areas.

“Take a few grams of tissue that belong safely in the brain, then the patients wake up not as perfect as they went into the surgery,” Ellenbogen says.

Ellenbogen and Olson knew they had to find a way to light tumors up during an operation.

Digging through existing research, Olson found a scientist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who was using venom from an Israeli Deathstalker scorpion to target brain tumors. The venom seemed to bind to the cancerous cells without affecting the healthy tissue.

Olson hypothesized that attaching a molecular flashlight of sorts to the venom would make it easier for surgeons to distinguish good cells from bad.

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