Illuminating Brain Tumors With Scorpion Toxins Could Save LivesS

Up until now, removing brain tumors has been a fairly imprecise—and thus highly dangerous—art. Cancerous tissue in the brain looks almost exactly like healthy tissue, and being just one millimeter off is enough to permanently affect a patient's quality of life. Plus, it's almost impossible to tell if any post-surgery neurological damage is from the tumor or the surgery itself. Jim Olson, a pediatric neuro-oncologist, looked to an unlikely source to solve the problem: scorpion toxins.

For reasons still not fully understood, injected toxins from a scorpion's sting will only bind to cancerous tissue and, as an added bonus, have the relatively rare ability to cross the blood-brain barrier. By creating a synthetic version of this toxin and binding it to molecules that glow in near-infrared light, tumors can be set aglow and, hopefully, save a lot of healthy brain tissue in the process. With a glowing tumor, surgeons would finally be able to identify cancerous cells with relative ease, making it far easier to avoid healthy tissue.

Successful tests have already been run in which a mouse playing host to a human tumor had the "tumor paint" injected into its tail. Within 20 minutes, the cancerous tumor began to glow, setting it apart from the rest of the mouse's body. Even though it originated as a venom, researchers say the toxin "seems to be safe." While not exactly a winning endorsement, the life-saving potential is overwhelming, and human trials should be starting sometime in late 2013.

You can watch the doctors discuss their discovery in the short film Bringing Light.[MIT Technology Review]

Image: Shuttershock, Arnoud Quanjer