"This is a very exciting development in the field of tumor cell markers, which can be used to improve a surgeon's ability to identify and remove tumors with surgery," says Dr. Allen Sills, executive director of the Memphis Regional Brain Tumor Center and associate professor of neurosurgery at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine. "A more complete removal of the tumor has been shown to clearly result in longer survival for patients with all forms of brain tumors and may offer hope for curing some types of tumors."
Considering the grim prognosis that often accompanies such tumors, the prospect of longer survival is a welcome one. For the roughly 17,000 Americans who face a glioma diagnosis each year, life expectancy is generally measured in months. On average, fewer than one in 10 is alive after two years. After five years, the figure is more like one in 30.
The dire situation of these patients has led to other novel approaches to differentiate cancerous cells in the brain from healthy ones.
"Several agents are in, or have been in, clinical trials in Europe," says Dr. Gene Barnett, professor and director, of the Brain Tumor and Neuro-Oncology Center at the Cleveland Clinic Neurological Institute. "What all of these techniques have in common is that they should -- and do, for those that have been scientifically tested -- help the surgeon do more complete surgery. More complete surgery may translate to better, longer survival for patients with malignant brain tumor, as long as the surgery can be done safely."
Despite hope and continued development of T-601, however, clinical applications are likely years away.
"A big problem is that the fluorescent dyes that Olson used are not FDA-approved and most are very toxic," Mamelak says. "There are basically very few such dyes that are approved, with relatively little incentive due to the costs of toxicity testing to make this approach financially feasible."
But what if the potential of this chemical could be fully harnessed? Olson says that the chemical may be used not only to detect brain cancer cells, but for early detection of other cancers as well.
"We're learning that many kinds of cancer may be able to be detected using tumor paint," Olson says, noting that in the scenario he imagines, a patient could take a tumor paint pill the night before seeing a doctor. Once this patient arrives at the doctor's office, the doctor could perform a simple scan that could detect even small cancer cells early.
For now, such a scenario remains largely theoretical. Still, Olson continues his research. He is currently planning a trip to Australia to work with a toxin and venom group there to see what other venoms may have the same type of therapeutic potential.
"When this idea was proposed to the National Cancer Institute, it was perceived as highly speculative and ambitious," Olson says. "The families of patients have paid for all this research.
"I think it is a beautiful gift, not only to those who have brain cancer, but as a prospective test for all cancer, if this bears fruit."