Tumour Paint


After reading the acclaimed book ‘Do No Harm: Stories of life, death and brain surgery’ by Henry Marsh myself and Rosie found ourselves with a small obsession with both Mr Marsh and brain surgery stories.

Do No Harm is a fascinating journey through a decades-long career of one of Britain’s most eminent neurosurgeons. The book has many virtues. It gives a rarely seen insight into the working life and thoughts of a surgeon (who freely admits to a little bit of a god complex – which he reminds himself to keep in check!), plus if you have an interest in medicine it gives an accessible account of many different types of brain tumours and aneurysms.

Obviously, with this new-found obsession with Mr Marsh we started to do a bit of digging on the internet and Rosie stumbled across a talk he was giving, along with paediatric oncologist Jim Olson. The talk, to be given at the Royal Institution, called ‘Colour and cancer; scorpions and surgery’ was to discuss new research into how to better detect and treat brain tumours. So, along with copywriter Kevin, we went to go hear our new favourite celebrity speak last Tuesday evening.

Just walking into the Royal Institution was enough to make you feel inspired. The building is an incredible one where the walls are covered with images of notable scientists – you just know that discussions which changed the face of science have happened there.

The talk started with Henry Marsh providing some background to his career and gave some of the stories found in his book, including his non-traditional route into medicine. With his charming and oh so very English manner he had the audience caught on his every word and I was a bit worried Rosie would launch herself at him.

When Dr Jim Olson began speaking it was the complete opposite to Mr Marsh. He was exactly what you’d think of as an American doctor, speaking of loving all his patients, becoming part of their families. They were two sides of the doctor coin (although this doesn’t mean Mr Marsh didn’t care for his patients, he’s just much more British about it!).

Then came the showstopper of the evening, Dr Olson presenting his research. The work his lab is doing is at the forefront of more accurately treating a range of cancers and has the potential to change the way medicine is done is this field.

They have discovered ‘tumour paint’, a fluorescent molecule which can attach itself to cancer cells causing tumours to glow under infra-red light.

This molecule comes from the Israeli Deathstalker scorpion. Like all good science the discovery that this molecule could be used in this way was a bit of a coincidence. A different lab was doing a different type of study in glioma cells and the scorpion protein and Dr Olson’s labs were able to see a connection to the work they were doing, so ran with it!

By having the tumour cells glow it allows surgeons to remove far more of the ‘bulky’ tumour, meaning they will be able to (hopefully) only leave microscopic amounts of tumour which can then be dealt with using chemotherapy and radiotherapy. This means a better chance of the tumour not reoccurring and better survival rates. Aside from the surgical advantages it also allows for more targeted chemotherapy & radiotherapy, as these treatments can be directed at the cancerous cells and avoid the healthy ones.

When the slide changed to one of the serum in a vial the whole room gasped, it looked a bit magical. Ethereal, even. A single vial which glowed bright white.

Tumour paint is now in a number of clinical trials and Dr Olson’s team are looking for a pharma company to market it (any of our clients reading this?).

Dr Olson ended his talk by showing us pictures of cute little kids – kids who unfortunately weren’t able to be helped by tumour paint but served as a reminder of the types of kids this might be able to help in the future.

Although the focus is currently on certain types of brain tumours and a handle of other cancers (skin, prostate, breast), they’ve also discovered a whole family of these proteins from lots of plants and animals. So, there is the hope that they’ll be able to identify other molecules which will target other cancers and even other brain disorders like Alzheimer’s and Schizophrenia.

We walked out of the talk feeling inspired. Through the whole thing you felt as if you were hearing something that will radically change the way cancers are treated. We were definitely in the presence of greatness.

One comment from Dr Olson stuck with me and strikes me as a great way to approach not only medicine but life as a whole:

Start each day thinking about what you do now that you don’t want to do in 20 years. Then work to solve that problem.

Harriet Cheshire   Account Manager

Publicis Resolute

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