Illuminating brain tumors with scorpion toxins could save lives

scorpion

Illuminating brain tumors with scorpion toxins could save lives

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.