PhD student Nat Harris waxes lyrical to kick cancer.
Working to pay for uni is one thing, but rapping to pay for cancer research? When Nat Harris started his PhD at UOW three years ago, he had no idea his love for rap would—or could—overlap his research into innovative cancer treatments.
Nat made a video explaining his research as part of his application to the worldwide Thinkable Open Innovation Award, where 48 researchers in labs from Cambridge to New York competed by popular vote for urgently needed research funds.
Nat has been working on developing a new drug with the potential to improve chemotherapy treatments and the overall survival rates of patients with many different types of metastasised cancer—cancer which has spread beyond the primary tumour to other parts of the body.
This drug belongs to a new class of anticancer ‘prodrugs’ that seek out cancer cells and kill them, but do not harm healthy cells, meaning fewer side effects.
“Current chemotherapy targets all fast dividing cells. This is why people can lose their hair and get very nauseous, because the drugs attack fast-growing hair and gut cells as well as cancer cells,” Nat says.
“We are working on a new method of actively delivering a large amount of our prodrug through a different pathway into the cancer cell. We hope that this will be able to demonstrate, for the first time, an increase in therapeutic effectiveness and a decrease in toxicity associated with chemotherapy treatment of cancers.”
Alongside his co-supervisor Dr Kara Perrow, Nat and the research team at the The Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI) are now testing the drug’s ability to target breast and pancreatic cancers. However, Nat says it also has the potential to kill ovarian, prostate, head and neck, oesophageal, and skin cancer cells.
The science gets very heavy very quickly, which is a problem if you’re trying to get non-scientists on board to vote for your project. While some scientists struggle to articulate their research in easy to understand terms, Nat says rapping has really helped.
“Rap can get into the social consciousness of people so it’s a good way to express your ideas and emotions—or even science to people.”
Nat says the new drug works by binding to receptors on cancer cells that normal healthy cells do not have. Once inside the cancer cell the drug activates kills the cell.
“The drug we are developing could be used as a superior treatment following surgery for cancer or as an alternative option for patients who are intolerant to conventional chemotherapy and/or radiation therapies.”
“It also opens the door to a more personalised approach in cancer treatment.”
Nat has seen the devastation the disease can cause firsthand, having previously had a close family member fight the disease. He hopes to use his skills to focus specifically on metastatic skin cancers to assist the 30 Australians who are diagnosed with melanoma every day.
“I was drawn to this research because I want to help people and make a difference. These days, everyone is affected by cancer either directly or indirectly through friends and family and when I realised what type of research is being done here at IHMRI I was just dumbfounded and wanted to be involved.”
- NAT HARRIS
UOW Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
UOW Bachelor of Science (Medical Biotechnology), 2012
UOW Bachelor of Science Honours (Biological Sciences), 2011
UOW Bachelor of Medical Sciences, 2007