Scientists at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have figured out how to use venom from the Israeli deathstalker scorpion to “light up” cancerous cells, making it easier for surgeons to distinguish them from healthy tissue. But that’s just one way they’re leveraging molecules from nature to battle cancer.
Our guest this week on GeekWire radio show and podcast is Dr. Jim Olson, a pediatric oncologist, brain cancer researcher and startup founder who leads teams developing these novel approaches to fight cancer. An attending physician at Seattle Children’s, he is based at Fred Hutch, where we interviewed him in front of a live audience this week.
Olson treats patients in addition to leading major research initiatives, which gives him an unusual and valuable perspective in the battle against cancer. Because of their research, he and his team are able to see barriers as challenges to overcome, not as insurmountable obstacles, he explained.
“There really is a take-no-prisoners approach to our research program,” he said. “We’re very aggressive. We’re risk-taking, and that’s driven by the patients. There’s no room to be meek about this.”
That connection to patients also gives Olson a unique and powerful form of motivation.
“When you see a scan and you know that the child connected to that scan is going to die, and you have to walk in and meet that child, and meet their parents, and share with them somehow that at Christmas there’s going to be one less child at the Christmas tree … what could possibly be more motivating than that?” he said.
Much of Olson’s research is focused on “optides,” which take their cues from naturally occurring molecules in sunflowers, grasshoppers and other organisms to target cancer cells.
One example is Tumor Paint, the approach derived from scorpion venom, which is being tested in clinical trials by Blaze Bioscience, one of Olson’s spinout companies. But that’s just the beginning of the potential applications of these optides.
“People ask, ‘If you can deliver light to the cancer, why can’t you deliver therapeutic to the cancer?’ ” Olson explained. “So a big focus of what we’re doing is to deliver therapies to the cancer. Some of those might be therapies that would kill the cancer cells, and others might be therapies that would educate the immune system about what’s different in the cancer than the rest of the body.”
They’re also working to turn these optides into drugs themselves, rather than merely having them carry a payload.
Along with advances in immunotherapy — redirecting the immune system to fight cancer — optides are one of the reasons why Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research president Dr. Gary Gilliland said last year, “It is actually plausible that in 10 years we will have cures and therapies for most, if not all, human cancers.”
Listen to the full conversation with Jim Olson or watch the video above, and download the MP3 here. Thanks to everyone who joined us at this special event. To donate to Fred Hutch through the matching program mentioned by Olson, use this link.