Local researchers turn to scorpions, spiders for cancer cures

SEATTLE, WA -- Dr. Jim Olson, a doctor at Children's Hospital, knew it was going to be a hard conversation.

His patient, a 10-year-old girl who loved nature and gardens had a brainstem glioma and Dr. Olson had yet to see a patient survive.

Within one year the tumor growing on Violet's brain would take her life, but before she died, she decided to donate her brain to Dr. Olson's labs at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

"In this world where stadiums are named after big corporations, where buildings are named after wealthy donors, I wanted to name the most exciting science that I've ever worked on to be named after her," said Olson.

And so Project Violet was born.

Dr. Olson said it's a program that looks to harness the power of nature through drugs that exist naturally in everything from sunflowers to scorpions.

"Every plant and animal needs to make their own drugs just to get through the day," said Olson. "A plant or animal can't go to Walgreens to get what they need to protect themselves, so they make their own drugs."

For example, the funnel web spider paralyzes insect prey with the help of a protein. Dr. Olson and his team of researchers said they believe, with some tweaks, they can use it to paralyze and kill tumors.

The petunia flower makes a protein that stops infections before they start and potatoes make a protein that repels incessant attacks from hungry bugs. Dr. Olson wonders, with improvements, how these proteins can also repel cancer, autism or strokes.

Dr. Olson said he and his team of seven researchers can take DNA sequences from plants and animals, and turn them into drug candidates in their Seattle based laboratory, the only one in the world capable of creating 10,000 new drug candidates in just three weeks. Dr. Olson said the goal is for doctors to find drugs that are more natural and less damaging than drugs that are currently used to fight disease.

"Most of these drugs that we use don't work very well and they are very toxic," said Olson. "We're trying to come up with drugs that you can take 100 times the amount of a drug and it wouldn't cause side effects."

Dr. Olson and fellow researchers at Blaze Bioscience say their crowning achievement yet may be 'Tumor Paint' - a drug that comes from a mini-protein that was isolated from the venom of the Israeli Death Stalker scorpion.

When it's injected into the bloodstream, the Tumor Paint finds cancer cells and lights them up thanks to a molecular flashlight, designed by Blaze Bioscience.

Dr. Olson said this allows surgeons to see and extract cancerous cells while leaving healthy cells alone.

Dr. Olson hopes Project Violet will help accelerate the drug discovery process. Each drug adopted through the Violet is part of process and may be the key to a new therapy. Dr. Olson said Tumor Paint human trials are set to begin within a couple of months.

Project Violet uses crowd sourcing to fund its project. For $100, Individuals can sponsor drug research via the Project Violet website.