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UW film about 'tumor paint' makes finalist in Sundance competition

UW film about “tumor paint” makes finalist in Sundance competition

UW film about “tumor paint” makes finalist in Sundance competition -

Dr. Jim Olson stands in his lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Olson collaborated with Bert Klasey to make the short film "Bringing Light." 

Photo by Joshua Bessex

A short film about a new cancer-fighting tool innovated by a team of professionals at UW called tumor paint became a finalist in a film competition about things that are changing the world. 

A presentation about tumor paint by Dr. Jim Olson, professor of pediatrics at the UW, caught the eye of Bert Klasey, a television producer, at a Hutchinson Center Fundraiser. They collaborated to create a short film for the Sundance Film Festival’s Focus Forward (SFFFF) competition, which became a finalist. 

Klasey directed the film team who created a three-minute documentary about tumor paint for the first annual SFFFF competition “Short Films, Big Ideas” against 95 other films about an idea or a person changing the world. 

This short film was called “Bringing Light” and was one of 20 finalists in the competition and one of 10 audience favorites. 

Tumor paint, innovated by a team of UW professors, “lights up” tumor cells so surgeons can see them while operating to distinguish them from healthy tissue.

The film featured a team of doctors at Fred Hutchinson that works with brain tumors. One patient, a boy named Keaton, had a brain tumor removed and was also featured. 

“Basically, we took that personal story as sort of the backbone of the film to present the innovation,” said Klasey. “Not only is this an incredible innovation, but here is the need for it. It can help kids like Keaton, who unfortunately did not have tumor paint when he was going through this stuff.”

Tumor paint was invented due to a neurosurgical need for technology to better differentiate tumor tissue from healthy brain tissue. 

“Until we could see [the tumor] differentiated from the normal brain, we couldn’t [remove] them totally,” said Richard Ellenbogen, professor and chair of neurological surgery at UW Medicine. 

Ellenbogen and a resident who was working with him at the time discovered that chlorotoxin, which is a scorpion peptide, bonds to brain tumors. 

From there, Minqin Zhang, professor of engineering, synthesized the chlorotoxin with an immunofluorescent agent and Olson tested and modified it. 

The pre-clinical trials also discovered that this scorpion peptide binds to adult and pediatric brain tumors, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and skin cancer, but not to the healthy tissue around these tumors. Olson hopes that human clinical trials will begin for all of the different cancers that tumor paint can bind to.

“Nothing gets done by itself, this really takes collaboration and teamwork,” said Ellenbogen. “I challenged everybody with a surgical problem and then we had a group of scientists who helped solve it. I feel very proud to be part of a team that has all the pieces.”

Olson’s patients and their families raised the money necessary for preliminary work on tumor paint because he found it difficult to find traditional funding while tumor paint was still in its “idea” stage. The idea sounded too speculative. 

Olson started the company Blaze Bioscience to commercialize tumor paint and to get the first in human data. Human clinical trials of tumor paint will begin this year. Although the film did not place in the top five places, it showed the world what tumor paint can do.  

“I see [the film] as a really important way for people to become aware of tumor paint and how this is going to change the practice of medicine,” said Olson.

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