BrainTalk

Treating the criminally insane and further adventures in psychiatry and mental health care

Scorpions and Brain Surgery

"Painting" the Tumor

Living in Phoenix, Arizona and St George, Utah – Sonoran and Mojave deserts respectively – I’ve had my share of run-ins with scorpions. As an emergency room physician in Phoenix, I dealt with their stings on a regular basis. I faced them personally as well,  pounding my shoes on the wall each morning before putting them on to dislodge any scorpions who might have crawled in during the night. In St.  George I was stung by one on a middle toe while standing in my closet. It made me sick for two days.

In short, I didn’t have much use for scorpions. Until now. Until I read the July 2014 issue of Wired magazine which contained an article about pediatric oncologist, Jim Olson MD, and his discovery of “Tumor Paint,” a potentially ground breaking concept on many different fronts.

One of the most vexing aspects for neurosurgeons when dealing with tumor removal is finding all the tumor. The living brain is the consistency of firm Jello and difficult to manipulate. Many folds of cerebral tissue convolute over each other. Small pockets of tumor can hide in the crevices, tuck behind the folds, or lay in a thin indistinguishable layer, making their complete removal difficult and the need for further surgery frequent. Dr. Olson discovered a way to “paint“ the tumor cells, making them glow a fluorescent green. Now a brain surgeon can simply dissect away the glowing cells, removing all the tumor and minimizing damage to healthy brain tissue. A revolutionary idea.

Dr. Olson used scorpion venom to do the trick. Complicated science aside, scorpion venom – who knew – gloms onto brain tumor cells and leaves normal cells alone. A florescent chemical is “tagged” onto the denatured venom which is then injected into the patient and the tumor cells light up, greatly facilitating their removal.

Of interest as well, Dr. Olson couldn’t obtain grant money to fund his research – "Too radical, " they said – so he turned to crowd sourcing, the Kickstarter model, and collected donations from former patients, their families and interested small donors. This formed a more personal bond between researcher and contributor. Millions of dollars were raised. As a result, lives will be saved.

This is a modern feel-good story. It illistrates the intersection of cutting edge science, a hip internet funding mechanism and one of mankind’s most dread pests – the scorpion. And it’s all good. 

     

Stephen Seager, M.D. is a psychiatrist and author of Behind the Gates of Gomorrah: Living with the Criminally Insane, which comes out this fall.

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