By Jason Raiche
SEATTLE - One of the hardest things for surgeons when removing cancer from the brain is distinguishing tumor from brain tissue. However, a Seattle doctor and Escanaba native may have the solution with technology that makes cancer detection easier for neurosurgeons in the operating room.
Escanaba native Jim Olson, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatric oncologist at the Seattle Children’s Hospital, examines a speciman under a microscope at a research facility in Seattle. (Courtesy photo)
Escanaba native Jim Olson, M.D., Ph.D., is a pediatric oncologist at the Seattle Children's Hospital, a full member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and a professor at the University of Washington's School of Medicine.
A graduate of Escanaba High School, Olson received his bachelor's degree in biomedical science from Western Michigan University, and a combined doctorate in medicine and Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Michigan.
"I knew I wanted to be a doctor since probably age 4 or 5," said Olson, noting his original idea was to become a family physician somewhere in the Upper Peninsula. However, while interning and researching at the Mayo Clinic, he realized integrating patient care and research was a passion of his and ultimately what he wished to pursue.
"I fell in love working with cancer patients, and particularly, children," he said. "I just was drawn more and more to children with brain cancer and other kinds of cancer."
Olson conceived the idea of what is now known as "Tumor Paint" in graduate school when he developed a molecule for PET scanning brain tumors.
This prompted him to work toward developing something that would bring light into a tumor or cancer and help neurosurgeons remove only the cancer, avoiding removal of any brain tissue.
Olson organized a team to research and explore how this could be done.
"After six weeks of considering various candidates, we determined our first research would be on scorpion toxins," he said.
According to Olson, the deathstalker scorpion makes a drug that gets into the brain and paralyzes its prey. The scorpion creates mini-proteins that, upon entering the blood stream, bind to cancer cells but not to normal cells for reasons scientists still do not fully understand.
This became the focus of his study since the scorpion has evolved over time and has had many years to perfect the drug they create.
With this knowledge, Olson's team created mini-proteins in the lab using the same DNA sequence the scorpion uses. They then attached molecular flashlights to the mini-proteins to see if they would bind to cancer cells and light up the cancerous areas inside the brain.
Olson's research has since been turned over to a start-up biotech company he developed called Blaze Bioscience along with the company's president and CEO Heather Franklin. Early experiments providing the Tumor Paint to mice and dogs with cancer have yielded positIve results.
Upon further research, Olson's team has determined Tumor Paint seems to not only work on brain cancer; its prospects look positive in detecting other cancers as well.
"We found out fortunately later, that it works in many other types of cancers including breast, colon, prostate, skin and other cancers," he said.
Human clinical trials of Tumor Paint are on track to begin in Australia in the next few months.
The trial will begin as a safety study, starting patients with a low dose of Tumor Paint to ensure they experience no negative reaction. The dosage will continually increase until a higher dosage that works safely in patients is determined.
Olson said this new technology has been widely embraced by the medical community.
"I haven't heard anything negative about it. We've heard many, many surgeons who asked when they can get their hands on it," he said.
While Tumor Paint research and trials continue, Olson and his team are now exploring a new phase of medical research.
He noted there are many other plants and animals in nature that, much like the deathstalker scorpion, make their own drugs to survive in the wild. Scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have actually discovered how to create thousands of variations of these drugs, hopeful that one could be the key to shutting down cancer or effectively treating diseases that are currently considered incurable.
"It costs a lot of money to build these drug candidate libraries from natural sources," said Olson, as it is difficult to obtain grants for this type of research.
To this end, Olson's team decided to engage the public in building these drug candidate libraries through the non-profit Project Violet, named after a young patient of Olson's who passed away from a brainstem glioma. Violet's wish was to donate her brain to research so that other children would not have to go through what she did.
People can donate to this cause or, for $100, they can even adopt, name, and follow one of the drug candidates on its potential path to FDA-approval.
Olson's work in developing Tumor Paint and in Project Violet have not gone unnoticed as he has been featured on National Public Radio and was recently named Outstanding Alumnus for 2013 by the University of Michigan's Pharmacology Department, among many other awards and honors. But what motivates Olson each day is far more than any award or recognition can cover.
"I take care of kids with cancer every week of my life and that's my motivation," said Olson. "When you take care of a kid and you have nothing to offer, there can be nothing stronger than to use your intelligence, creativity and education to make the world a better place."