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Seattle Children’s Research Institute professor Jim Olson wants more researchers in biotech

He also wants to push great gains in cancer treatment for children even further.
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Jim Olson

· 3 min read

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This week’s Making Rounds spotlights Jim Olson, a professor at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, part of Seattle Children’s Hospital, where he runs a research lab that develops new therapeutics for children with brain cancer.

At the institute, Olson also directs the Invent at Seattle Children’s Postdoctoral Scholars Program, which trains scientists from underrepresented backgrounds and kick-starts their careers in researching treatments for childhood conditions.

Olson discussed how Invent at Seattle Children’s got off the ground, why treating patients who are children brings him optimism, and what makes the road to better cancer treatments so long.

This article has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did the Invent at Seattle Children’s program get off of the ground?

So there was a graduate student in the lab, Eric Nealy, who was part of the program for diversity, equity, and inclusion students at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He went to a conference there for a week, and he came back and he was glowing. And I said, “You look happier than I’ve ever seen you.” And he said, “That’s just because I’ve been surrounded by Black and brown scientists for the whole week. And it was the first time I felt like I belonged. It was so different than being the one Black kid in the department or the one Black kid on the floor.”

That day, I asked him, “Would you help me? And would you like to begin growing a community within our lab and beyond so that you and others don’t have that feeling of not belonging, when you very much belong?” And so he said, “Yes.”

We began building a stronger community within our lab, but that led to developing a program at Seattle Children’s that is now funded at over $45 million to create an on-ramp for scientists from either underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds to become leaders in biotech.

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In addition to running that program, you also conduct research to treat brain tumors. Could you tell me about that?

When I tell people that I care for kids with brain tumors, they often say, “I could never do that. I love kids too much.” People assume that caring for children with cancer is a horrible or sad job. In reality, it’s one of the most gratifying jobs you could ever imagine.

I’m still closely connected with families of kids that I took care of 30 years ago. It’s a lifelong connection in most cases. We become family the day we meet. Within 24 hours, we’re making decisions together that are the biggest decisions ever in one’s life. And we certainly have horrifying days. But we also have beautiful days where kids survive, and a scan is clean.

The dramatic improvement that our pediatric oncology community has made in one lifetime is an under-celebrated accomplishment in science and medicine.

What stands between increasing the likelihood of survival even more?

What you really have is an organism with billions of components that are each evolving in ways that are trying to overcome whatever you throw at it as a physician. But with our FDA regulatory structure—which is not a bad structure, I admire it—we had one attempt to improve our therapeutics over the course of 15 years, at a cost of $300 million or more, to see if that might make a difference against cancer.

Meanwhile, there’s a billion cells in each person trying to overcome not only that advance, but every other advance that we have.

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Healthcare Brew covers pharmaceutical developments, health startups, the latest tech, and how it impacts hospitals and providers to keep administrators and providers informed.