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The images show how tumors appear to a surgeon using Blaze Bioscience’s “tumor paint.” Rows A and B represent two images taken at different times during the surgery. The first column shows the tumor as seen by the human eye; the middle column is the tumor viewed through near-infrared (NIR) fluorescence; the final column is a composite image. (Blaze Photo)

Blaze Bioscience, a Seattle-based biotech company that’s using a protein borrowed from scorpion venom to make cancerous tumors glow, has passed its first clinical trial with flying colors and is on to the next stage.

Blaze’s “tumor paint” technology, called BLZ-100 or tozuleristide, helps surgeons spot and remove solid tumor cells in patients. It works by combining a fluorescent dye with a molecule that latches onto tumor cells. The dye emits near-infrared light, which surgeons can see clearly with a special imaging system.

Dr. Adam Mamelak, a neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai and senior author on the study, said the fluorescent technology makes a tumor “light up like a Christmas tree.”

Blaze Bioscience’s “tumor paint” is a synthetic version of a peptide originally found in deathstalker scorpion. (Alastair Rae via Flickr)

“It’s remarkably powerful,” he told GeekWire. “You see normal, normal, normal — and suddenly see you this blue fluorescence.”

The trial showed that the tumor paint was safe in adult patients with glioma, a kind of tumor that occurs in the brain and spinal cord. The success paved the way for Blaze to test the technology in children with brain cancer.

Researchers at Cedars-Sinai, a hospital in Los Angeles, led the study, which will be published in the journal Neurosurgery.

Mamelak compared the process of locating a tumor in the brain to finding a grape in a bowl of jello that’s the exact same color. Everything is squishy, and the boundaries between tumor and brain are subtle.

“Fluorescence provides a contrast between normal and abnormal,” he said.

Gliomas, which account for 81 percent of malignant brain tumors, can be hard to distinguish from healthy tissue. They also aren’t very responsive to chemotherapy and radiation, which makes surgical removal critically important.

None of the 17 patients in the study had serious negative effects from the treatment. The glowing effects lasted from 3 to 27 hours after dosing.

One of Blaze’s biggest challenges was getting the imaging equipment right. “The operating room is a very unfriendly environment for anything that gets between the surgeon and the operation,” Mamelak said.

Mamelak helped to develop the imaging equipment, which directly connects to a surgical microscope. He later spun out the technology as an independent company, which Blaze then acquired. That deal gave Mamelak a stake in Blaze, but he said the phase 1 trial predated any financial relationship between him and the company.

Blaze’s next clinical trial involves children with brain cancer and is taking place at 14 sites across the country, including Seattle Children’s Hospital, where it enrolled its first patient last fall. It is also planning a separate adult trial.

Blaze CEO Heather Franklin co-founded the company in 2011 with Dr. Jim Olson, a brain cancer researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Blaze employs 17 people and has raised $40 million to date.

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