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Fred Hutchinson begins 'Project Violet'
SEATTLE—The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is looking to join the crowdfunding trend with the initiation of Project Violet, a program inspired by a young girl named Violet, who died at age 11 due to an inoperable brainstem tumor.
The program seeks to involve the community in the drug discovery process by raising funds through crowdfunding in order to develop a new class of anti-cancer compounds derived from organisms in nature such as flowers or scorpions. These compounds, known was optides, are capable of attacking and destroying cancerous cells while healthy cells remain unharmed, which would offer an improvement over current methods of chemotherapy, which often destroy healthy cells along with tumor cells. It is hoped that these compounds can be developed into treatments that kill cancer while avoiding standard chemotherapies' toxic side effects, such as nausea and hair loss.
Jim Olson, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatric brain cancer specialist who works in the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutchinson and also practices at Seattle Children's, is the driving force behind the project. Olson was Violet's doctor. Prior to Violet's death in 2012, she and her family requested a rapid autopsy to allow as much as possible to be learned from her brain tumor and enable the creation of important research tools.
"That spirit of generosity led to the most exciting scientific project I've worked on in my life. It was only fitting that it be named after Violet," Olson said in a press release. "I knew that we were going to do this in her spirit, memory and honor. "
Citizen scientists can be a part of the project by helping the scientists build their candidate drug libraries with the 'adoption' of a drug candidate for $100. The public can choose from one of six organisms—violet, scorpion, locust, sunflower, spider or human—and will also receive an image of the drug molecule. Scientists at Fred Hutchinson will test the candidates for effective properties, and if the chosen drug candidate fails at any point, the citizen scientist can replace it with a new one. The most promising candidates will advance to additional testing, with the ultimate goal of moving into human clinical trials.
Project Violet is based on Olson's invention of Tumor Paint, a molecule derived from scorpion venom that can light up cancer cells to visually distinguish them from normal healthy cells, making it easier to ensure all cancerous tissue is excised during surgery.
Olson and his colleagues have taken this further, creating "optimized peptides," or "optides." This new class of drugs consists of tiny molecules that can be programmed to bind only to and disable specific types of cancer cells. In addition, optides can be attached to chemotherapy drugs in order to deliver them more precisely to tumor and limit the destruction of healthy cells. Olson and colleagues are working to develop optides for a variety of treatment-resistant malignancies, including brain cancer, melanoma, breast cancer and tumors of the neck and throat. Fred Hutchinson recently began a collaboration with Blaze Bioscience Inc. to support the former's optide discovery program.
"We were impressed that scorpions have evolved amazing drugs, which led us to begin looking deeply into the drugs produced by other plants and animals. For example, sunflower petals are not eaten by bugs because they make a compound that protects them from hungry insects," Olson noted in a press release. "Likewise, we found exquisite examples of drugs made by potatoes, spiders, cone snails, sea slugs and, yes, violets."
Olson noted that they have developed a new optide production system that can quickly synthesize thousands of optide variants, which can then be evaluated for therapeutic potential. They are now capable of making "12,000 a month, and are ramping up beyond that," according to Olson.
"Optides offer unprecedented accuracy – an entirely new class of drugs that are far less toxic, far more effective and flexible enough to be used in a wide range of applications," he added.
SOURCE: Fred Hutchinson press release