Dr Ben Harper is determined to improve cancer patients’ lives by investigating new treatments with fewer side effects. He is keen to specialise in oncology (research, diagnosis and treatment of cancer) after he’s trained as a physician at John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle.
“There are always research opportunities, even if I’m not in the laboratory,” he says. “I’m working with patients and doing clinical research, which is really interesting.”
Dr Harper loved chemistry and physics in high school, though didn’t get the marks to study medicine straight away. Instead, he chose Medical Science at Western as a base to build on, and has not looked back. “The best advice shared with me is that if you don’t know where you want your career to go, build on your marks to open up your options,” he explains.
“Western is rated highly and I believe offers a much better lifestyle compared to city campuses too.”
Professor Janice Aldrich-Wright at the Campbelltown campus, whose research into anticancer agents has gained international recognition, encouraged him to make something of his passion for chemistry. And she told him to knuckle down for Honours in Medical Science. “I guess she saw something in me as a researcher I hadn’t seen in myself yet,” he says.
“She motivated me to embrace research culture; it’s exciting science that could make a big contribution to improving society, one medication at a time.”
Dr Harper also gained his PhD under Professor Aldrich-Wright’s supervision, testing platinumbased anti-cancer drugs that can bind to DNA. One molecule he made added a fluorescent tag to an anti-cancer drug so he could study its movement into cells and he found it was quite effective at killing cancer cells.
Support from Western allowed him to present those findings in Sweden, including to biochemist Professor Roger Yonchien Tsien who won a Nobel Prize for his development of green fluorescent protein. The University’s network also opened doors for a career in medicine.
“After my PhD I was offered a research job in Israel through collaborative work of my professor, working on platinum-based anticancer drug design. I was able to bring the research I had worked on at Western to an international platform and it also enabled me to get into the medical degree” he says.
“There’s a lot of interest in many of these ‘biological drugs’ which don’t have quite the toxic profile of the classical chemotherapy drugs. If we can make drugs with fewer side effects and improve the survival of patients, that will be a great achievement.”
WORDS BY STUART RIDLEY