Jim Olson has spent far too many years explaining to parents why he removed a healthy part of their child’s brain, in order to surgically remove the tumor.
On an MRI scan, cancer is easy enough to spot. But during surgery, these cells can look remarkably similar to the healthy ones, which are often cutout by accident.
So Olson, a Seattle-based pediatric neuro-oncologist, set out to develop technology to help surgeons better differentiate between cancerous and healthy tissue. What he came up with is a new product called Tumor Paint, which illuminates cancer cells with fluorescent dye.
“I always wanted to find a way to bring light into the cancers so surgeons could see what they’re doing while operating,” said Olson in a video documentary about the discovery called Bringing Light.
Tumor Paint is now the first product from Seattle-based parent company Blaze Bioscience. Blaze was founded in 2010 and has subsequently grown to 13 employees.
Olson initially procured funding for Tumor Paint from family members of his patients at Seattle Children’s Hospital; the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had turned down on numerous occasions by the for being overly ambitious. For the first test, Olson’s team grew a brain tumor on a mouse’s back and injected an early prototype of the Tumor Paint into a tail vein. Within an hour, the cancer lit up.
Armed with promising early test results, the company received $9 million in fresh second round financing today from individual investors, primarily biotech executives, and parents of Olson’s patients. To date, Blaze Bioscience has raised $19 million.
The funds will support a human clinical trial for the first Tumor Paint product candidate, BLZ-100. The trial will be initiated in the coming months at a hospital in Australia, where the company has a virtual presence, according to Blaze Bioscience cofounder Heather Franklin.
Franklin told me that researchers have already tested the Tumor Paint product on pet dogs with cancerous tumors and received ample praise from veterinarians.
How Tumor Paint works
Tumor Paint exists in two parts: One is the tiny molecules called optides, which bind to particular types of cancer cells; the other is the fluorescent dye.
Optide, which are derived from natural organisms such as scorpions and sunflowers, have the unique capability to bind and internalize into cancer cells. When combined with the dye, they emit light in the near-infrared range. Optides can bind to a very specific sort of cells.
“Tumor Paint should be able to see things that are even smaller than things surgeons could have detected prior to surgery with scans, like an MRI,” said Franklin, a former senior business executive at ZymoGenetics, a Seattle-based therapeutics company.
What she means by that is that an MRI can only reveal a brain tumor’s location. However, it’s another thing entirely to find the tumor in a living brain during surgery. Surgeons will often open the brain to find the tumor and inevitably remove some of the healthy cells, too. This can cause all sorts of problems for the patient, including vision or memory loss.
Tumor Paint, which is an estimated 500 times more sensitive than an MRI, won’t just be useful to brain surgeons. Franklin envisions that oncologists will use the product for surgeries to treat breast, colon, lung, and skin cancers. For breast cancer, women often have to undergo repeat surgeries as the cancer was not fully removed. “We envision that we’ll make a significant improvement on that,” said Franklin.
In July, Blaze Bioscience signed a partnership agreement with Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to advance drug discovery and research around this technology. Both institutions have applied for several patents around the Tumor Paint technology, and Optide drug candidates during the research phase at the Hutchinson Center.