Scorpion venom to be used in fight against cancer, clinical trials on human begins

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A technician extracts venom from a scorpion at Labiofam Laboratories in Santa Clara, Villa Clara province in central Cuba, around 280 km (174 miles) from Havana August 5, 2011. The venom will be used to make an anti-cancer medicine that Cuba has developed and is beginning to sell in Cuba and other countries. Reuters/Enrique De La Osa

A researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle is making waves with innovative thinking in the field of cancer treatment by the use of scorpions. Jim Olson has led a team of researchers who have successfully devised “tumour paint,” a drug that illuminates cancer cells by attaching itself to them, making operation easier for surgeons.

Scorpion venom contains a compound called chlorotoxin, which is currently under clinical trials in the form of a drug called Tumor Paint BLZ-100, according to a story published by Fred Hutch website. The tumour paint is injected into the veins of a patient and on crossing the blood-brain barrier it finds its way to the tumour. Near-infrared light is then shone on the tumour, which glows under the tumour paint.

Olson, a paediatric oncologist, is aware of the risks in removing tumours. “The surgeons right now use their eyes and their fingers and their thumbs to distinguish cancer from normal brain,” he tells NPR. To prod around in a patient’s brain with just surgical tools leaves high chances of damaging healthy brain cells or leaving parts of the cancer behind.

Blaze Bioscience was handed the task of developing the compound commercially discovered by Olson and his team. On seeing promising results in initial studies on dogs, the company received approval to test tumour paints on human subjects. Human trials of tumour paint are being conducted in Los Angeles at the Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

Chirag Patil, a neurosurgeon at Cedars Sinai, calls it “remarkable” that a drug injected into the patient’s vein can find its way to a tumour, attaching and illuminating only the cancer cells. “That's a concept that neurosurgeons have probably been dreaming about for 50 years,” he tells NPR.

The first study of tumour paint in humans aims at proving that the compound reaches the tumour. Future studies will look at ascertaining the role of the tumour paint in not just helping surgeons remove the tumour but also developing a similar compound that might deliver an anti-cancer drug directly to the tumour, thus eliminating the need for surgery.

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