A doctor believes he has come up with a new way to locate cancer cells: with scorpion venom. The idea is for patients to be injected with a protein found in the venom that creates a fluorescent “tumor paint” around the borders of a cancerous mass.

Dr. James Olson, pediatric oncologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, joined Jenna Lee on Happening Now to discuss his trailblazing research.

Olson – who had a very difficult time getting grants for his study before private investors funded his team – said that, following a difficult treatment with a 17-year-old cancer patient, a colleague asked him to come up with a solution when the best tools available simply aren’t enough.

“(He) asked me if my team could create a molecule that would make the cancer light up, so that surgeons can see what is cancer and what is not cancer,” Olson explained. “And for the subsequent 10 years, we’ve been working on that, focusing on this one molecule that comes from a scorpion toxin.”

Working with the deathstalker scorpion – one of the deadliest in the world – Olson is hopeful that his research can change how cancer is treated and ultimately save lives.

“The fact that this has worked beautifully in dogs that have cancer and we’ve been testing it in human cancers grown in mice tells me it’s not an unreasonable hope,” he said. “It’s a reasonable hope that this will work for human patients.”

Jenna asked Olson how he could be sure that the injection would not harm the patient. Olson responded that scorpion toxins contain thousands of proteins and he's working with one that has no known toxicity in humans or mammals.

"We chose this one because it binds to a target that is on cancer cells, but isn't present on the surface of normal cells. And so I reasoned that if you put a little molecular flashlight on it and injected it into the bloodstream, that it would go through the body, find the cancer cells, be internalized into the cancer cells and make them light up so that surgeons could see them while they're operating," he explained.

Watch the full interview above.


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