As a pediatric oncologist for two decades, I'm inspired by the kids I care for to discover effective drugs for cancer and incurable disease. Our Tumor Paint, the scorpion-derived cancer drug goes to clinical trial in a few months ( Inspired by a generous and lovingly sassy little red haired girl, we launched Project Violet (, a citizen science project in which the public takes a seat in drug discovery - a process that is usually behind closed doors with investor needs at the forefront.

Comments: 194 • Responses: 33  • Date: 

LilEffects36 karma

How crazy does it make you when the "alternative medicine" crowd says things like "We have a cure for cancer, but it's being hidden from us in a ploy to make billions in treatment" or "Doctors don't want to cure cancer because then they'd be out of business"?

DrJimOlson162 karma

Easy to ignore. All of my colleagues would love to be put out of business. Sit at the bedside of one dying child and there's no room for anything but impatience at the speed of discovery.

LilEffects21 karma

Thank you for your response. It's aggravating to me that this rhetoric is used by shills to sell supplements that can be sold without any proven efficacy or published side effects. That in itself is a multibillion dollar industry.

DrJimOlson46 karma

I know right? We're busting our ass to pay for bona fide scientists (who get paid very little given their level of education) and someone just invokes a conspiracy theory and brings in millions.

Ruskoh26 karma


DrJimOlson44 karma

A team at University of Alabama showed that a scorpion venom peptide bound to brain cancer cells - they thought it was binding to calcium channels, but were wrong - I felt that scorpions would have had millions of years to get it right - meaning a drug that crosses into the brain, so we decided to go for it. Sometimes even wrong information leads you to the right place.

DrJimOlson19 karma

Some of our best ideas come from the public. We would not have imagined working on Autism 3 years ago - or Alzheimer's disease, but now we have robust programs in both. Any suggestions on what you'd like us to consider?

bearhugsbeerhugs9 karma

Do you think there are/will be opportunities to use this type of research with mental illnesses?

DrJimOlson15 karma

I believe there are. Mental illnesses are often caused by problems in ion channels or large proteins. The small drugs made by most drug companies simply are not big enough to interfere with the disease process - and be specific without too many side effects.

bearhugsbeerhugs3 karma

how does this work help with the study of autism?

DrJimOlson16 karma

One form of autism is caused because there is a genetic mutation in the sodium channel gene that lets sodium (salt) into nerve cells in the brain. We have a spider peptide that binds a pocket of that channel and keeps the channel open longer. So fewer channels in the brain, open longer, means more normal function. We are just starting a collaboration with a world expert on this type of autism and should have candidate drugs tested in cells by the end of the year.

DrJimOlson8 karma

One form of autism is caused because there is a genetic mutation in the sodium channel gene that lets sodium (salt) into nerve cells in the brain. We have a spider peptide that binds a pocket of that channel and keeps the channel open longer. So fewer channels in the brain, open longer, means more normal function. We are just starting a collaboration with a world expert on this type of autism and should have candidate drugs tested in cells by the end of the year.

poliscicomputersci19 karma

How do you keep positive while dealing with patients dying all the time?

DrJimOlson70 karma

Fortunately, patients aren't dying all the time. When I was a kid, less than 5% of kids with cancer survived to adult hood. Now we are approaching 80%!!! That's one of the great, somewhat unknown, advances in medicine in the last century! Honestly, my team and I have a blast in clinic most Wednesdays. The kids and their families are full of life and we're all in it together. Sometimes the families and our team are laughing so loud, the other doctors need to ask us to quiet down a bit.

stoicsmile13 karma

I was stung by a pretty brutal scorpion once, an Arizona Bark Scorpion. It sucked.

My question is do you slowly torture them to death to extract the venom. Do you have video?

DrJimOlson36 karma

I've never even touched a scorpion. We just need their DNA sequence, which we get from sources on the internet. Theoretically, we could create drug candidates from species that are extinct, if other scientists find intact DNA and sequence it!

brightstreetconst9 karma

this is incredible! does it still blow your mind?

DrJimOlson19 karma

I held my breath as we did the first studies of Tumor Paint in canine cancer patients (dogs who have cancer, and their families bring them in for surgery and therapy). The data I have seen looks amazing (it's on my TEDx talk at - and it actually blew my mind. I can't imagine how it will feel when kids start benefitting.

Quasifrodo7 karma

How is it possible to keep up with testing 10,000 drug candidates a month?

DrJimOlson15 karma

At first, we make these in pools. So there are thousands made simultaneously. This works great for some targets, like an idea we have for Alzheimer's disease - but for other really important targets, we will need to make individual candidates. Basically, we'll need to create a factory-like situation to make each individually. At first our capacity will be much lower than 10K, but we'll build

acjw7 karma

How is your research being funded?

DrJimOlson23 karma

Right now, 100% of the research on "drugs from nature" comes from generous individuals. At, people from the community can "adopt a drug" for $100. They get to name it and follow progress of our team. Some other people have donated larger amounts, like $1000 to "gift" drug candidates to a classroom of school kids - or $10,000 to gift it to a whole school. We are also writing grants, but these are tough to get and take a long time.

hmmmt2 karma

check out, a lot of these organizations support Dr. O!

DrJimOlson17 karma

a group of 5 girls formed the Pink Polka Dots Guild about 5 years ago in honor of their best friend Sydney, who died of a brain tumor. They raised over a half million dollars to drive the research on Tumor Paint. Many other patient families have been part of the discovery process both by giving us good ideas and through fundraising.

CobraSamurai7 karma

Hi Dr. Olson, it is an honor to talk to you! I’m a student in my senior year of undergrad and am somewhat trying to follow in your footsteps. I’m interested in pursuing a career in oncology research with a focus on naturally occurring toxins. My question is where can one really specialize in this field, in graduate school and beyond? Do any specific schools have well developed programs for this specific research?

DrJimOlson11 karma

I suggest you check out the Institute for Molecular Biotechnology at the University of Queensland - outstanding researchers there.

nowimarobot6 karma

Hello Dr. Jim, thanks for doing what you're doing!

How do you convert the DNA sequences into the candidate drugs, do you use bacterial cell factories?

Also are there any other plant/animal chemicals you're looking into at the moment for future drugs?

DrJimOlson5 karma

Bacteria choke on these proteins because they need to fold in a way that bacteria can't handle. We therefore use mammalian cells that have the right folding machinery.

We are currently making every known knottin peptide drug from every plant and animal that has been identified!

name_user4205 karma

im friends with your daughter on facebook and she posted the link to this. what you're doing is really cool!! im confused though because she also alwaysss posts stuff about being against animal testing. im assuming you do animal testing to test these drugs?? how does that play out at home?

DrJimOlson14 karma

All of our work funded by Project Violet does not involve animal testing. As drug candidates advance toward human use, the FDA requires animal testing. My daughter and I have great discussions about this - she knows that I have the utmost respect for animals.

acjw5 karma

tumor paint will light up cancer cells in the body. do you think you will find a substance in nature that will actually destroy the cancer? Any promising leads?

DrJimOlson15 karma

Yes, I have no doubt (though I'm an optimist) that we or others will find a peptide - or make a derivative - that will kill cancer cells. The real trick is to find one that kills cancer cells without damaging normal cells. I believe this is possible. I hate when researchers create false hope, so I think it is too early for us to say we have promising leads. I would rather say that we have a super smart team and incredible technology and we're willing to share our drug libraries with other researchers - so all the right pieces are there.

seattlemoose5 karma

Hello! Thanks for all your amazing work. How will your research be used? Will it be freely available to others researchers outside your team?

DrJimOlson19 karma

We plan to share the libraries of drug candidates with other innovative scientists around the world. This is one of the reasons that we kept this in the academic setting instead of starting a company. I think we can harness more brain power and help more people. It's fun to be at a position where the almighty dollar doesn't have to be first priority.

viper77924 karma

Have you gotten a chance to do any research into cannabis or cannabis extracts as a potential medicine?

DrJimOlson9 karma

Not in our lab. You should check out Nephi Stella's work. I personally think he is on track to find cannabis derivatives that will benefit brain tumor patients.

All of our drug candidates come from DNA-encoded mini-proteins. Different than cannabis. But some of the ideas are the same - we look for drugs from nature that already get into the brain, before making variations that might address currently incurable brain diseases.

Frogtron3 karma

What keeps you awake at night?

DrJimOlson31 karma

The raccoon outside our bedroom window

hfrrfrr1 karma

How will patient drug testing be financed?

DrJimOlson5 karma

Two ways - in some cases, the clinical trials will be run by biotech or pharma companies that license the candidates from us. These will be financed by their investors or from their operating funds. For rare diseases that don't really have a market, we are willing to look for creative solutions so that foundations that represent these patients could use their precious resources to advance clinical trials rather than paying big licensing fees.

Shadom31 karma

Where do you get your funding?

DrJimOlson7 karma

We raised about $1million in the past four months through generous individuals that adopted drug candidates or made major gifts (see My lab has been very successful in getting NIH grants, though these are sometimes difficult to get when you have a cutting edge idea. I hate it when reviews come back that say "this is overly ambitious". Really?

Cannabian4201 karma

Might be outside of your specific expertise, but I know some reseachers have demonstrated using "DNA origami" to encapsulate medication and open on a set of conditions. Has anyone experimented with using the venom to deliver medication/dna origami to the area? just seems like it would be exciting to see in the future.

DrJimOlson3 karma

With Tumor Paint (see - "about the science" for an award winning video), we do deliver "light" (a molecular flashlight) to cancer cells using the scorpion peptide. It is easy to imagine delivering other toxins or therapeutic molecules. The peptide we use for Tumor Paint is not ideal for this because a lot of it goes to liver and spleen as part of getting cleared from the body - would hate to knock off someone's liver as a side effect - not good form. We'll find other, better candidates.

TurboSS1 karma

So your basically the Thomas Edison of cancer?

DrJimOlson8 karma

Have you read his biography? The guy was stunning both in his innovative way of thinking - and his ability to rally awareness and financial support of his initiatives. If our efforts make anything close to his impact on cancer, I'll throw the biggest party you ever saw - and you're invited.

kvnmss1 karma

My wife's grandmother just got diagnosed with stomach cancer last week and she's going for her first chemotherapy treatment next week. Do you have anything to recommend as natural supplements helping an already very frail 78 year old lady?

DrJimOlson1 karma

Wish I could help. I really do. My team encourages patients to use natural supplements (about half the kids do) in addition to chemotherapy. The nutritionists on our team make most of the recommendations though, and I care for kids, so have little experience with 78 year old patients. You might check out Bastyr University to see if there are suggestions on their website.

star3341 karma

What do your family and friends think of you work? They must be proud.

DrJimOlson8 karma

For sure. I was the first person on either side of the family to go to college. After 18 years of education AFTER high school, some were wondering if I would ever get a job. But now, things are really clicking. I owe it to my amazing patients and scientific team!

Rolgenie0 karma

Where do you get your drug candidate materials? Do you have stocks of sunflower, violet and spider extracts, or do other researchers send you the extract?

DrJimOlson4 karma

We use no extracts, just DNA sequences.

DrJimOlson12 karma

Crazy thing is, it costs $2600 to order 10,000 genes on the internet. So we can design them, place an order, and get them by FED Ex next Tuesday. Then the fun begins as we make the drug candidates from the synthetic genes.

Thanks Human Genome Project!!

moon_cheez0 karma

How do you feel about being regarded as a "super dad" and a "man without flaws" by the friends and acquaintances of your daughter Sarah?

DrJimOlson3 karma

cracks me up.

DabMonger-2 karma


DrJimOlson2 karma

I submitted my Fred Hutch badge to reddit. Not sure why it didn't post. go to and you will see our social media posts on the official Hutch website that describes my participation.

BigCat9000-4 karma

Don't you have a conflict of interest when you're running this charity organization whose research feeds directly back into your company, Blaze Bioscience, which would be manufacturing and selling the drug for a profit?

DrJimOlson7 karma

My wife and I decided that if any of the drugs adopted through Project Violet lead to an FDA approved drug, we will donate 100% of our share to charity. So no.