Treatment Research

Optides: A Revolutionary New Cancer Medicine

Dr. Jim Olson

Dr. Jim Olson is developing molecules that attack cancer cells while leaving healthy cells untouched.

Dr. Jim Olson and his colleagues are developing a fundamentally new class of anti-cancer compounds: molecules engineered to attack cancer cells without harming the healthy cells around them. These new compounds, called optides, could dramatically improve on traditional chemotherapies. And Olson's approach is potentially less expensive and more powerful than other next-generation techniques.

Optides address one of cancer treatment's most vexing problems: chemotherapies usually destroy healthy tissue alongside the cancerous cells they target. This can exact a heavy toll on patients, with many suffering such severe side effects that they must limit their chemotherapy dosage or stop treatment early. 

In contrast, optide molecules can be better instructed to bind to particular kinds of cancer cells, disabling only those cells. Optides can also be attached to chemotherapy drugs, transforming them into precision therapies that ignore healthy cells.

Olson's team used scorpion venom as a model for an innovative "tumor paint".

Zeroing in on Cancer Cells

This innovative research uses nature as its guide. Many organisms produce tiny proteins, called peptides, that are small enough, stable enough and specific enough to deliver cancer drugs. Olson and his colleagues are modifying these molecules to generate versions that zero in on cancer cells.

Olson pioneered the clinical use of optides when he teamed up with researchers at Seattle Children’s and the University of Washington to develop an innovative “tumor paint” – a drug that attaches to cancer cells and illuminates them, helping surgeons identify where cancers begin and end.

Looking Forward

Now Olson’s team is spearheading an ambitious program to develop optides that target some of the most treatment-resistant malignancies: brain cancer, and tumors of the head, neck and throat. These molecules are poised to spark a radical leap forward in cancer medicine.

In 2014, Dr. Jim Olson spoke on Tumor Paint at the SXSW Interactive conference.

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Project Violet and TEDxSeattle

In August, 2013, Olson and colleagues at Fred Hutch launched Project Violet, a citizen science initiative that is using crowd funding to enlist the help of the community to develop anti-cancer compounds that attack cancer cells while leaving healthy cells untouched. The ultimate goal is to develop highly targeted treatments that kill the cancer while sparing patients from the toxic side effects of chemotherapy such as hair loss and nausea.

Project Violet builds on Olson’s successful optides research and is named after one of his former patients.

You can watch Olson's presentation to TEDxSeattle about his research and Project Violet:

How Optides Work

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