Media Releases

Rapping doctor’s beef with cancer

PhD student Nat Harris waxes lyrical to kick cancer. 


When Nat Harris started his PhD at UOW three years ago, he had no idea he would be able to combine his passion for rapping with his research into innovative cancer treatments. 

But the two worlds collided when Nat produced a rap video last year explaining his research, which went viral. The Austinmer local is now using his lyrical talents to apply for the worldwide Thinkable Open Innovation Award to pursue his research focused on improving the treatment success for cancer patients. 

Since embarking on a PhD at UOW’s Faculty of Science Medicine and Health in The Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI) under the supervision of Professor Marie Ranson, Nat has been working on developing a new drug that has 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 ‘prodrugs’ that seek out cancer cells and specifically 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 said. 

“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 IHMRI are now testing the drug’s ability to target breast and pancreatic cancers. However, Nat said it also has the potential to kill ovarian, prostate, head and neck and oesophageal and skin cancer cells. 

“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, who also has a Bachelor of Medical Science and a Bachelor of Science (Medical Biotechnology) Honours from UOW, said the new drug works by binding to receptors on cancer cells that normal healthy cells do not have. Only once inside the cancer cell will the drug activate and kill the cell.  

Nat knows the devastation cancer can cause first hand, 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.” 

Using a 3D model of real cancer and tissue cells, Nat and his colleagues are able to test the drug in a life-like scenario. 

“A 3D context is much better than a 2D context, which is how previous cancer research has been done, because tumours work in a 3D environment in our body. We use these systems because they recapitulate what happens when someone gets cancer.” 

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.”

The new Thinkable award is a worldwide competition; with 48 researchers from research labs from Cambridge to New York vying for urgently needed research funds. To support Nat and his research on cancer and help attain money valuably needed for Australian cancer research, vote for his latest video. 

Media contact: Elise Pitt, Media & PR Officer, UOW, +61 2 4221 3079, +61 422 959 953,