Treating Cancer with a Scorpion’s Venom: Jim Olson’s Talk on Creativity and the Human Spirit in Medicine (video)
Doctors don’t care like they used to. As you’ll witness in this video, Dr. James Olson turns this statement on its head. He is infusing hope and creativity into cancer research at a time we most desperately need it.
Jim Olson is a pediatric neuro-oncologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital who cares for kids with brain tumors. He is bringing “light into the cancer” — two words we typically don’t associate with one another. But Dr. Olson thinks differently. He wants those malignant cells to shine, to glow so brightly that a few hundred cancer cells hiding in a lymph channel enveloped in a fat nodule won’t be able to escape a surgeon’s eyes:
“Inside the brain it is very difficult to tell the difference between normal brain and cancer. It’s all about millimeters. You’re a millimeter off, take a few grams of tissue that belong safely in the brain, then the patients wake up not as perfect as when they went into the surgery.”
To solve this problem, Dr. Olson looked to the natural world. He found his answer in an unlikely candidate: the Israeli Deathstalker scorpion. which has the most powerful venom of any scorpion. The Deathstalker’s venom contains chlorotoxin, a peptide that attaches to certain brain cancer cells while leaving surrounding healthy cells untouched.
Pair this targeting peptide with a fluorescent dye (a beacon) and Dr. Olson came up with “tumor paint.” This method of lighting up cancer cells is 100,000 times more sensitive than an MRI in detecting cancer cells. And, more importantly, the tumor paint shows surgeons precisely what to cut out while leaving healthy cells in place.
Dr. Olson’s work doesn’t stop there. At the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, he is investigating the efficacy of pharmaceuticals and targeting specific cancer cells by means other than surgery. Inspired by a young girl who donated her brain to science, he started Project Violet, an initiative that aspires to build “a ‘citizen science’ community to rapidly accelerate research for a new class of drugs derived from nature.”
Dr. Olson’s presentation at this year’s PopTech conference (I highly recommend you attend next year) was the only one to receive a standing ovation. Yes, many were fascinated with the brilliance of his science and the inventiveness of his initiatives. But, I witnessed something deeper than that and that’s ultimately what drove the audience to stand and applaud.
Dr. Olson’s “unique intersection of science and medicine” was borne out of caring for the other. His work centers on human connection; the engine that drives his work is human relationship. This is the stuff that serves the human condition, the matter that inspires us to do good for the sake of people and not for fame or money.