Treating Cancer with a Scorpion's Venom: Jim Olson's Talk on Creativity and the Human Spirit in Medicine (video)

Saturday, October 26, 2013 - 9:46am
Photo by Julie Novak

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.


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Trent Gilliss

is the cofounder of On Being / KTPP and currently serves as chief content officer and executive editor. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on "The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi" and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent's reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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Hurrah for Dr. Olson and his team!
Question? Is there work like this being done on cancer PREVENTION?

Yes, there is research being done on cancer prevention. Look up Dr. Nystul at UCSF and his research involving adult stem cells in drosophila ovaries. He talks about hypercompetition between cells and that it may be the answer to a possible mechanism for the exponential spread of cancer throughout the body. He has engineered cells to produce certain proteins and for some reason unknown at this point, cells containing those certain proteins are more likely to bump out other cells and take the place as the adult stem cell. This provides the possibility for engineering cells that can bump out cancer cells who have made their home as the adult stem cells in certain areas of the body.

Amazing research & such solid values behind it!

I cant stop crying after watching this. The most touching news I have heard in a long time. I raised a son with a chronic and severe medical condition and this gives e hope that there are truly compassionate authentic healers in the world today. This gave me real hope that yes, we are evolving. Thanks so much for On Being!

A new dawn
There all along waiting for heartfelt people to see........
Thank you for reporting.......

This is not surprising to Herbalists around the world. We use plants and minerals all the time for healing. Science often takes a long time to catch up. here in the rainforests of Panama, learning from the old,indigenous people we handcraft all of our remedies from scratch. The successes are amazing. These plants know what they are doing. It is up to drs and science to open themselves to the real nature of these biodiverse possibilities. cultures all arouns the world have been using these things for thousands of years and not for nothing!
Dianne Heidke- Cloud Forest Botanicals, Boquete. Panama

The blog is absolutely fantastic. Lots of great information and inspiration, both of which we all need. Thanks for such a continuous great postings.