When a patient comes and has an MRI scan and there’s abnormality, you can see that there’s a brain tumor there, but you can’t see where it begins and where it ends … Unfortunately, it doesn’t get that much easier when you get into the operating room. [Surgeons] operate with white light, using their eyes, their thumbs, their fingers, to figure out what’s cancer and what’s brain … [A surgeon] came to me and he said, “Jim, you and your team need to find a way to make these cancer cells light up so we can see them while we’re operating.”
We did that.
We developed a molecule that [we] inject into the bloodstream: it travels around the body; it finds the cancer cells; and it inserts a little molecular flashlight into the cancer cells and makes them glow so that surgeons can see them while they’re operating…
[Later] we learned that this technology, that this tumor paint that we had invented, was about 100,000 times more sensitive than the MRI scans that we use. And that the surgeons could use it in real time, that it isn’t just a static picture hanging on the wall that was taken two or three days or two or three weeks before surgery…
30% of women with breast cancer find out that where the surgeon stopped cutting, there are still cancer cells and that they probably need to have more surgery done. And, unfortunately, they get this information 7-10 days after they’re in the operating room. That is not fair, and that can’t be the way we operate 10 years from now.
—From Dr. Jim Olson’s TEDxSeattle talk, "Making tumors glow to stop cancer," in which he explains the experimental “tumor paint” he and his team at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have developed using the bioluminescence of scorpions. Watch Jim’s whole talk below:
(Above — an example of tumor paint from Jim’s talk)