Rapping scientist lays the diss on cancer

A PhD student developing a new drug that could improve chemotherapy treatment and patient survival rates has described his research over some sick beats.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
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PhD student Nat Harris has used his love of rap to describe his research into a new cancer drug. The drug is aimed at improving the survival rates of patients with metastasised cancer -- cancer which has spread beyond its primary site into other parts of the body.

Developed under the supervision of Professor Marie Ranson at the University of Wollongong's Faculty of Science Medicine and Health in the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, the drug belongs to a new class called "prodrugs." Prodrugs, unlike chemotherapy, only target cancer cells -- not healthy cells.

"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," Harris explained.

"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."

Although the current research is focused on testing the drug's efficacy for breast and pancreatic cancers, it also has potential to target ovarian, prostate, head and neck, oesophageal, and skin cancer cells. The latter is particularly important in Australia, which has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.

The drug works by binding to receptors -- protein molecules that receive chemical signals from outside the cells -- that are found within cancer cells, but not within healthy cells.

Harris' team is using 3D-modelling of real cancer and cells to test the drug in a lifelike setting, as opposed to the 2D environment of a petri dish, to see how it impacts the cancer microenvironment -- the red and white blood cells, the vascular cells and the protein cell scaffolding, all of which form the backdrop for cancer evolution and metastasitation. This also allows the team to test the drug on specific patient tumour samples to gauge its effectiveness on specific cancer states.

"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," Harris said. "It also opens the door to a more personalised approach in cancer treatment."

This is not the first rap video Harris has made to explain his research. In March of last year, he also released a video called Fresh Science. His latest video has the rather less catchy name "Understanding skin cancer migration using 3D invasion systems," but hopefully a more useful effect. Harris and his team have submitted the video to the Thinkable Open Innovation Award in the hopes of winning $5,000 in funding to further their research.

You can check out Harris' dope rhymes below -- and head over to the Thinkable website to check out the rest of the entries and vote on your favourite.