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When Dr. Jim Olson describes a project as the most exciting he’s ever worked on, that’s truly saying something.

Olson, 50, is pediatric brain cancer specialist based at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who also works at Seattle Children’s. He spends time not only in the clinic but in the lab — not just treating patients but also leading efforts to find more effective treatments through cutting-edge research.

The initiative he’s referring to is Project Violet, a new effort that gives the public — i.e., all of us — the opportunity to “adopt” drug candidates for $100 each to help fund the development of new cancer treatments derived from natural organisms such as violets, scorpions and sunflowers. The crowdfunding initiative was named after a patient of Olson’s who died at age 11 and made a remarkable contribution of her own to cancer research.

Meet our new Geek of the Week, Dr. Jim Olson, and continue reading for excerpts from our interview this week about Project Violet and the rest of his work, including two biotech companies that have spun out of his research.

Max Hanson, left, who was one of Dr. Olson’s patients as a young child, is working as a lab assistant at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center this summer.

How did you come to be involved in this particular type of research? 

I grew up and trained in Michigan, and got an MD and PhD at the University of Michigan. I knew since I was 4 years old that I was going to be a doctor. I thought I was going to return to upper Michigan, where I grew up, and be a family doctor. But the reality was that in all of my medical school clinical rotations, every night when I finished my work I found myself at the bedside of a cancer patient chatting with them, and I just felt completely drawn to this group of people. I never imagined that I would go into pediatrics. It hadn’t really crossed my mind.

In the TedX talk, I tell the story about the girl who changed my life completely. It was caring for her that made me realize that the combination of pediatrics and oncology was exactly the place that I wanted to be. But as you might expect, going into pediatric oncology is kind of a tough emotional road. So for me, the fact that I balance my clinical care with doing research that changes and improves the way that care for these kids makes it not only acceptable but a lot of fun, as strange as that might be sound.

You’re not only applying what you’ve learned, but also trying to advance the state of what you can apply.

Absolutely. And there’s good reason to believe that we’ll be successful in that. When I was a kid, if a child had malignant cancer, the likelihood of surviving would have been less than 5 percent. Now we’re approaching 80 percent. It’s really that high, in one generation.

What do you attribute that to?

We learn from every kid that we care for, and people like me do research to try to make things better. The other thing that’s unique about pediatric oncology is that, for more than 40 years, all of the pediatric oncologists in the world have put their ego behind them and chipped in to do what it takes to come up with new therapies and to test them. Rather than competing with each other to say, ‘My trial is better than your trial, we should run this at my place,’ we all realized that if we cooperate, we can get so much more done. So a child being diagnosed with a brain tumor in Florida will be placed on the same protocol as a child being diagnosed in Nebraska.

I’m running one of those trials right now in 250 centers around the world, and from that we will learn whether a Vitamin A derivative (Accutane) that’s approved for treating acne in teenagers improves survival for kids with Medulloblastoma, one of our most malignant kinds of brain cancer.

You explained that each patient contributes to scientific knowledge, but it sounds like Violet contributed more than most.

Violet at the Gorge
Violet O’Dell of Sequim, who died at age 11, inspired “Project Violet.”

She changed my life, and I believe that she’s changing other people’s lives as we speak.

From a scientific standpoint, what was the significance of what she did?

She knew she was going to die from her cancer, and knowing that, and knowing that it was really hard for us to study her type of cancer — because it’s not a surgical cancer — she asked if we could take her brain out when she died, and make research tools that we could share with other investigators around the world so we could help other kids in the future not have to die from her cancer. And that spirit of generosity is as big as it gets. She gave what she could give. That creates an opportunity for us to give a little bit each, to all chip in what is a very modest amount to drive a really innovative research program that’s named in her honor.

How does the crowdfunding element of this project work?

You’re probably familiar with the Adopt a Star program that NASA had some years ago. This is along those lines. People can adopt one of the candidate drugs that we make. They give it a name. They can share it with their friends through Facebook, and they can follow the progress of our scientific teams. We’ll be creating a blog called Milking Scorpions to keep them up to date with what we’re doing. They can write in and give us ideas for diseases to work on. We’re specifically trying to go after diseases that are considered incurable.

What are your aspirations for this project?

My specific goals are that by the time I retire I can walk into the room of a family who has a child like Violet, with that type of cancer, and offer them some real hope because of a drug that we discovered. In the 23 years that we’ve been taking care of kids with brain cancer, I’ve never had a single child with that type of cancer survive. And so I want this to deliver a drug that is successful for those patients. I also believe that by sharing our platform of drugs that we make with other brilliant investigators around the world, we will have impact on Alzheimer’s disease, autism, stroke prevention, bipolar disorder and other diseases that are really tough to go after with traditional pharmaceuticals.

Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.

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What’s the biggest misconception about your field?

A big misconception is that it’s horribly sad to treat kids with cancer. The fact is that every Wednesday I spend my full afternoon taking care of kids with cancer and their families, and I come home just charged at the end of those clinic visits. Where else in medicine can you spend as much time as you need with a patient and a family, and get to see them week after week, month after month, and become embraced as part of their family from day one? Where else can you go through all the components of a relationship — love, hating each other, coming to points where you have to come to a decision fast that’s hard to make? It’s a very rich life.

Who are your biggest role models? 

Francis Collins was one of my (attending physicians) when I was in medical school, and the month that I was in service with him, I loved the quality of patient care that he provided. He could get to the bottom of what was bothering a patient. He could find the basis not only of their medical problems but their social problems. Even after our whole team had spent time with them, he could walk into a room and after a few minutes find new things.

He spent time sitting down every day teaching the residents, as if he had all the time in the world. He would just answer every question that we had. And I learned at the end of the month that he had written the first grant for the Human Genome Project, a 600-page grant, while we were on service together for that month. And I saw him there for 14-16 hours a day, so the man must have written that grant during the night. Anybody who has that kind of connection with their patents and also has a vision for how to change the world is definitely my role model.

olsonworkspaceWhat’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? 

The most important thing about this workspace is that when I moved into this office, there were shelves on the walls that had all my books and papers and stuff like that. I literally felt like I had work hanging over my head. So we ripped it all out. I sweet-talked the guys to put color on the wall … and then I have artwork that my daughters made, that inspires me.

You have a stack of papers next to your computer. So not everything is digital yet?

Not everything, but pretty close. To run an operation like we’ve got here — I’ve got two biotech companies, and a 15-person lab team, my clinical work — one little stack of papers isn’t bad.

Both of those biotech companies are spinouts from your work. What’s the status of each?

olsonThe first one is Presage Biosciences. One day in my clinic I realized that we can’t keep writing prescriptions without knowing if the patient’s cancer is resistant or sensitive to it, so I hired some engineers into my lab here at the Hutchinson Center, and we developed technology where we can insert an array of needles into a patient’s tumor. As we withdraw the needles they leave a track of chemotherapy or drug combinations behind, and the next day when the surgeons take it out, we can learn which of those drugs work best and which of them are totally ineffective.

We now are in our first clinical trials here at the Hutchinson Center, and we’re also working with Celgene and Millennium Pharmaceuticals to help them shape their drug combination strategy. The company is booming. With an investment from Celgene recently, we are now at 27 people, the company is valued at $99 million in less than 3 and 1/2 years.

And then the other company is called Blaze Bioscience. Blaze is the company that’s bringing Tumor Paint to patient care (to “light up” cancer for visibility to physicians). Heather Franklin is our CEO. They licensed tumor paint from the Fred Hutchinson Center in 2011 and two years from the time they licensed it, they will be initiating the first human clinical trial. During that time, they changed the chemical that we used for lighting up cancers. They developed the formulation, did all the toxicology studies, did a study in 23 dogs that have cancer at WSU. We can see the cancers lighting up beautifully in dogs. They’ve set up a subsidiary in Australia, and they’re getting ready to launch the first trial on time and on budget.

[Related Story: Blaze Bioscience raises $8.5M to help surgeons pinpoint cancer cells with ‘tumor paint’]

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life: Prioritizing cycling or kayaking in my day. My mind is most creative when I get in the flow of exercise.

Best Gadget Ever: iPhone, no comparison.

Favorite App: One Bus Away.

Favorite Cause: Project Violet. I made a personal donation that was 10 times bigger than my previous biggest gift because I believe Project Violet will enable people to live healthy lives that would otherwise have been compromised by disease.

Most important technology of 2013: Super cheap DNA synthesis platforms.

Most important technology of 2015: Better, smaller batteries — way better.

For more, here’s a TEDx Seattle talk in which Olson discusses his work and Project Violet. Learn more about Project Violet and adopt a drug candidate via this site.

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