An encouraging new way to combat brain cancer may be available soon and will likely change how doctors treat the disease. A groundbreaking new idea using scorpion venom will allow doctors to see and remove cancer cells more effectively in the near future.
The venom of the Israeli Deathstalker scorpion is extremely deadly, but a recently discovered and unique property of the poison has medical researchers excited about its possibilities to help treat brain cancer, reported CBS News. The predatory arachnid’s venom can be used to make “cancer light up” so doctors can see it more easily when performing brain surgery.
The idea came about after Dr. Jim Olson, a brain cancer physician with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, performed a 12-hour brain surgery to remove a tumor from a 16-year-old patient. However, much of the cancerous tumor was missed during the operation, so Dr. Olson was determined to find a better way to see it.
“Sometimes, it’s really hard for a surgeon to tell what is cancer and what is normal,” Dr. Olson said, as cited by CBS News. “And in the brain, you can’t take out a big chunk of normal just to make sure you got the cancer.”
After being reproduced without the poison, the scorpion’s venom can be safely injected into a cancer patient’s bloodstream. Once inside, the new non-lethal material will attach itself to cancer cells but not to normal cells. Dubbed “tumor paint” by Dr. Olson, the substance is combined with a fluorescent dye, which forces the cancer cells to glow distinctly from healthy cells when exposed to an infrared laser light.
Dr. Olson believes the technique will someday help surgeons safely and effectively remove unhealthy cells as “tumor paint distinguishes clearly the difference between brain cancer and normal brain in all of our experiments that we’ve done so far.”
“I think this will potentially be the biggest improvement in cancer surgery, maybe, in 50 years,” Dr. Olson told CBS News. “God bless the Israeli Deathstalker scorpion!”
Dr. Olson anticipates tumor paint will be approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration sometime before 2020. He hopes the scorpion venom technology will not only help with cancer treatment but also be used to target other medical conditions like arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease as well.
Despite advances in brain cancer surgery in recent years, removing all traces of cancer is somewhat of a shot in the dark for surgeons, according to Smithsonian Magazine. They must rely on experience and a photograph of the patient’s brain as a guide during the operation.
However, the brain is soft and changes shape during surgery, making the picture essentially useless soon after surgery begins. Additionally, both normal brain tissue and tumors are nearly identical in color, which poses yet another challenge to surgeons trying to remove the cancer without damaging healthy brain matter. An overly-cautious surgeon may not remove enough of the cancer to make a difference, while another surgeon could remove too much material and adversely affect other brain functions like sight and motor control.
While scorpion venom combined with a dye may advance brain cancer surgery, the poison may someday provide the elusive cancer cure researchers have been seeking. In the past few years, scientists have been trying to develop innovative cancer-fighting drugs using scorpion, bee and snake venoms. In laboratory tests, these toxins have been shown to kill cells and researchers think venom could be used to specifically target cancer cells.
In one promising set of experiments, reported Nature World News, scientists at the University of Illinois were able to use scorpion venom to effectively kill breast cancer cells. As long as clinical trials remain successful, lead researcher Dipanjan Pan thinks an effective cancer treatment created with the arachnid’s toxic concoction will be available to humans within the next five years.
[Featured Image by Protasov AN/Shutterstock]