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SXSW 2014

Here Is a SXSW Speaker Who Just Put What We're Doing in Perspective

Jim Olson is helping cancer surgeons with venom-based tech

Photo: Getty Images

His work may not be typical Adweek fodder, but one of the questions posed to cancer researcher Jim Olson after finishing his South by Southwest Interactive presentation made the rest of the festival seem somewhat trivial. A young man stood up and asked: "My good friend has a brain tumor and is being told he has three to six months. Can I put you in touch with his medical team?"

Olson told him that they could visit after he was finished speaking.

He's developed a system where a tiny molecule lights up brain tumors so neurosurgeons can more easily suss out cancer from normal tissue. It's designed to improve the results from cancer surgeries. Here's the thing: When surgeons remove a tumor, it is difficult to see where the cancer cells start and end.

Using what he calls "tumor paint," Olson's revolutionary process leans on scorpion venom, of all things, as a chief ingredient. Yeah, the venom of a predatory arthropod. He says the system is working in trials, but needs to move through regulatory stages before becoming widely used by neurosurgeons. (Awareness is also a challenge, which is why he's speaking at South By.)

Olson' firm, Project Violet, focuses on finding new treatments for tumors that have few therapy options. A lot of his team's work is aimed at helping children diagnosed with brain tumors.

Adweek caught up with him at SXSW and asked him to describe how the scorpion venom works in a 15-second Instagram video. Given the complexity of the topic, he was a great sport about the request.

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