Center News

Paint precisely targets tumors

Clinical Research Division's Jim Olson and team develop molecular beacon that enables surgeons to see cancer cells 500 times better than an MRI

Aug. 1, 2007
Dr. Jim Olson

Dr. Jim Olson led the creation of Chlorotoxin:Cy5.5 in his Clinical Research Division lab. When injected into mouse models, the fluorescent paint illuminated brain tumors as small as 1 millimeter in diameter without lighting up the surrounding normal brain tissue.

Center News File Photo

A tumor paint developed by researchers at the Hutchinson Center and Seattle Children's Hospital Research Institute will help surgeons see where a tumor begins and ends more precisely by illuminating the cancerous cells. The study, published in the July 15 issue of Cancer Research, shows that the tumor paint can help surgeons distinguish between cancer cells and normal brain tissue in the operating room. The paint is a scorpion-derived peptide called chlorotoxin that is linked to the molecular beacon Cy5.5. Until now, there has been no way to allow surgeons to see tumors "live" during surgery.

Chlorotoxin:Cy5.5 is a fluorescent molecular beacon that emits photons in the near infrared spectrum. This illumination gives surgeons a better chance of removing all of the cancerous cells during surgery without injuring surrounding healthy tissue. This is particularly significant in the brain, where approximately 80 percent of malignant cancers recur at the edges of the surgical site. Current technology, such as magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI) can distinguish tumors from healthy tissue only if more than 1 million cancer cells are present. But Cy5.5 can identify tumors with as few as 200 cancer cells, making it 500 times more sensitive than MRI.

"My greatest hope is that tumor paint will fundamentally improve cancer therapy," said senior author Dr. Jim Olson, of the Clinical Research Division and Children's. "By allowing surgeons to see cancer that would be undetectable by other means, we can give our patients better outcomes."

Olson led the team — including neurosurgeons, engineers and biologists — that created Chlorotoxin:Cy5.5 in his laboratory at the Hutchinson Center. When injected, the substance emits a near-infrared light. In mouse models, the team demonstrated that they could light up brain tumors as small as 1 millimeter in diameter without lighting up the surrounding normal brain tissue. In a prostate-cancer model, the paint enabled detection of as few as 200 cancer cells traveling in a mouse lymph channel.

Chlorotoxin:Cy5.5 is applicable to many cancers, but is especially helpful to surgeons operating on brain tumors. Not only would it reveal whether they'd left behind any bits of tumor, it would also help them avoid removing normal tissue. Chlorotoxin:Cy5.5 activates within hours and it begins binding to cancer cells within minutes. The Chlorotoxin:Cy5.5 signal lasts for 14 days, illuminating cancer cells. Contrast agents currently in use only last for a few minutes.

"I feel fortunate to be working with gifted scientists to bring this revolutionary imaging technique from the laboratory to the bedside," said Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, co-investigator on the study and division chief, neurosurgery at Children's. "This development has the potential to save lives and make brain tumor resection safer."

Despite advances in surgical tools, surgeons currently rely on color, texture or blood supply to differentiate tumor from normal tissue, a distinction that is often subtle and imperfect. The limitations of this method contribute to cancer growth or patient mortality that is potentially preventable. The tumor-painting technique combines a visual guide for the surgeon with the potential for significant improvement in accuracy and safety.

Tumor painting has been successfully tested in mice and the pilot safety trials are complete. Olson and his team are preparing the necessary toxicity studies before seeking approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin clinical trials. Chlorotoxin:Cy5.5 could be used in operating rooms in as little as 18 months. All clinical studies will have consenting adult participants.

Possible tool for early detection

Olson and his team believe that Chlorotoxin:Cy5.5 has the potential to be used in the future as a non-invasive screening tool for early detection of skin, cervical, esophageal, colon and lung cancers. It is also useful in identifying positive lymph nodes, which could mean a significant advancement for breast, prostate and testicular cancers.

Other Hutchinson Center and Children's researchers on the team include Dr. Mandana Veiseh, Patrik Gabikian, Dr. S-Bahram Bahrami, Omid Veiseh, Miqin Zhang, Dr. Robert Hackman, Ali Ravanpay, Dr. Mark Stroud, Yumiko Kusuma, Stacey Hansen, Deborah Kwok, Dr. Nina Munoz, Dr. Raymond Sze, Dr. William Grady and Dr. Norman Greenberg.

[Adapted from a news release from Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center.]

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is a world leader in research to prevent, detect and treat cancer and other life-threatening diseases.