SEATTLE -- Could a scorpion hold the cure for cancer? How about a sunflower? A Seattle oncologist is inviting the public to choose which plants or animals researchers should use to treat the world's toughest diseases.
Dr. Jim Olson, a pediatric brain cancer specialist at the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center, has founded "Project Violet," a program that allows citizen scientists to invest in the development of new cancer drugs made from organisms ranging from spiders to potatoes.
Investors can "adopt a drug candidate" for $100 through the project website. Donors choose from five organisms - spider, petunia, potato, scorpion or horseshoe crab - and then choose a drug molecule inspired by that protein. The investor names the drug candidate and can give their email address so they can stay in contact with the scientists working on that drug and learn if their investment leads to a lifesaving discovery.
"Every donation really helps launch a program that might not otherwise be possible," Olson said. "A hundred dollars gets the drug out of the computer screen and into testing for diseases like pediatric cancers."
Donors can also adopt drug candidates for schools or classrooms.
"You become part of a community that is working together to find new cures," Olson said. "I believe people's lives will be enriched and our program will be able to continue at full speed."
The drug candidates in Project Violet are part of a new class of anti-cancer compounds derived from plants and animals: "optimized peptides," also known as "optides." It is believed these peptides can be used to attack cancer cells while leaving healthy cells untouched, sparing patients from the toxic effects of chemotherapy including hair loss and nausea.
Project Violet was built on the success of Olson's initial invention of Tumor Paint, a molecule derived from scorpion venom that safely travels through the body and causes cancer cells to light up to help surgeons distinguish cancer from normal tissue.
"We were impressed that scorpions have evolved amazing drugs, which led us to begin looking deeply into the drugs produced by other plants and animals," Olson said. "For example, sunflower petals are not eaten by bugs because they make a compound that protects them from hungry insects. Likewise, we found exquisite examples of drugs made by potatoes, spiders, cone snails, sea slugs and, yes, violets."
Olson and colleagues are developing optides that target some of the most treatment-resistant malignancies: brain cancer, melanoma, breast cancer and tumors of the neck and throat. These drugs may also lead to treatments for epilepsy, depression, anxiety and other disorders of the central nervous system, Olson said.
"Optides offer unprecedented accuracy - an entirely new class of drugs that are far less toxic, far more effective and flexible enough to be used in a wide range of applications," he said.
Other researchers have tried to create drugs derived from plants and animals, but most efforts have failed because it is so challenging to make optides inexpensively, rapidly and in large enough quantities to conduct rigorous scientific experiments.
But, Olson and his collaborators have developed a new optide production system to quickly synthesize thousands of optide variants that can then be evaluated for therapeutic potential.
"Whereas it takes some companies a decade to make hundreds of peptide drug candidates, we can make 12,000 a month and are ramping up beyond that," he said. "Nature provides the raw materials and we provide the expertise to turn them into lifesaving therapies."
Project Violet was named after Violet O'Dell, one of Olson's patients from Sequim, who was diagnosed with a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma brain tumor in 2011 when she was 10 years old. The disease kills 90 percent of patients within nine months, and the remaining 10 percent rarely live past one year. In his 23 years practicing oncology, Olson has never had a child survive this type of cancer. When Violet learned she was likely going to die from her brain tumor, she focused her hope on others. She asked Olson if she could donate her brain tumor to research after she died.
"That spirit of generosity led to the most exciting scientific project I've worked on in my life. It was only fitting that it be named after Violet," Olson said. "I knew that we were going to do this in her spirit, memory and honor."Violet's mom Jess is confident Olson's work will lead to significant discoveries.
"He is going to find a cure this way because of his humble values," she said. "It take a village. It doesn't matter where the credit goes, just that it happens."