In 1888, William Williams Keen, the man who is considered to be the first neurosurgeon in the United States, successfully remove a malignant brain tumor.
Unsurprisingly, this moment is a watershed moment in the history of modern surgery.
You can imagine that 125 years later, there would be many more radical and advanced methods of brain tumor removal.
However, the most significant change in surgical procedure may have just occurred.
Since its invention, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) has been giving surgeons an unprecedented level of detail into the structure of the human brain.
The MRI gives surgeons the ability to non-invasively produce extremely detailed images of the brain and hence, of tumors.
But neurosurgeons currently have no assistance in discerning healthy brain tissue from cancerous tumor cells once they cut you open and take a look inside your noggin to investigate.
The problem is that while a surgeon can now get an exceptionally beautiful image of where the tumor lies in a scan of the brain, the actual tumor removal is essentially just as difficult as it was in the past.
This lack of information about the exact location of a tumor in a living brain has led to serious iatrogenic problems—or, problems caused by the doctor over the course of a treatment procedure.
There are usually two outcomes. Either the surgeon cuts too little of the cancer out and the tumor continues to grow in the following weeks, reversing the progress made by the initial surgery, or too much is removed and the surgeon accidentally cuts into healthy brain tissue, which ultimately compromises crucial brain function.
The current method of brain tumor removal seems almost archaic in its complete lack of precision. One highly ambitious neurosurgeon from the state of Washington thinks so, at least.
James Olson, a pediatric neurosurgeon at the Seattle Children’s Hospital, may have just come up with one of the most radical changes in brain surgery technique that the field has seen since Keen, and may have even revolutionized the future of cancer identification and treatment.
Olson and his colleagues at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle recently created a molecule that travels through a patient’s blood stream and can not only detect and attach to cancerous tissue, but also causes the tissue to glow fluorescent green in real time.
The compound they isolated to create this incredible identifier molecule, known as Tumor Paint, comes from a peptide in the toxin of an Israeli deathstalker scorpion.
Olson and his research colleagues combined the peptide from the scorpion toxin with a fluorescent protein, to create Tumor Paint.
This revolutionary molecule now allows neurosurgeons to delineate the fluorescent cancerous tissue in high resolution from the normal looking healthy tissue during the surgery, an enormous leap in procedural efficacy.
And Olson isn’t the only one working on fluorescent cancer indicator molecules.
There are investigators now in Germany and San Diego who are looking into this ground breaking cancer treatment technique.
Something as simple as being able to indicate the precise location of tumors in the brain may eventually lead to surgical advancements in the near future that are even greater than anyone could possibly imagine.
In a recent TED Talk in Seattle, Olson said that he “believe[s] that the time will come when surgeons will look back and say ‘I can’t believe we used to operate without being able to see where the cancer cells were.’”
So, to all the members of the Bowdoin community who have been affected by the malicious hand of cancer and to those interested in pursuing neuroscience, medicine or biomedical engineering, we may be at the precipice of a paradigm shift not only in neurosurgical technique, but in the whole field of oncology at large.