Almost 3,000 Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer this week. Every one of these individuals will be forced to consider treatment options while coping with the devastating news that they have the disease. Natalie Raso hopes to help these people by providing them with an effective treatment that will kill cancer cells while not harming healthy cells. This may sound like a tall order, but for this 16 year old from Hamilton, Ontario, it’s all in a day’s work.
At the tender age of six, Natalie decided that she wanted to become a doctor. This came as no surprise to her parents. Even as a young child, she was a responsible, mature leader. “Natalie was teaching her classmates in junior kindergarten how to read—and she was proud of it,” says her mother, Catherine. “She’s entirely internally motivated.”
Natalie’s interest in the elusive search for a cancer cure is not only driven by her sense of ambition, but also for a very personal reason. “Both of my grandfathers were heavy smokers, and one of them died of lung cancer,” she explains. This tragedy coupled with her passion for health sciences fuels her goal to find a cure.
She began her research by investigating smoking and lung capacity. Soon after, she began studying gastric cancer. Her project in this area—Gut Reactions: A Histological Investigation of the Effect of Helicobacter Pylori in the Development of Gastric Cancer—won her a gold medal at the Canada-Wide Science Fair in 2004. As a result, Natalie was given the opportunity to attend the Asia Pacific Youth Science Festival in Beijing, China. Little did she know that this event would be the beginning of a new chapter in her life as a young innovator.
It was at this festival that Natalie was first introduced to oncolytic virus therapy. She was instantly intrigued and wanted to know more. How can viruses fight cancer, and how could she contribute to this area of research?
“When I returned home I was eager to pursue this field,” she explains. She contacted Dr. Jeffrey Hummel and Dr. Karen Mossman at McMaster University’s Centre for Genetic Therapeutics, both of whom are experts in the field of oncolytic virus therapy. They were ready and willing to provide Natalie with the resources and guidance she needed—and the opportunity to perform leading-edge research. What more could a teenager ask for?
Natalie’s research involves investigating whether the mutant Herpes Simplex Type I virus (HSV-1) can successfully and safely kill all cancerous bone cells while not harming any healthy bone cells. It is an excellent candidate for cancer therapy because it’s easy to manipulate, and it kills infected cells. It is also a safe therapy because medications are available to control the virus should it replicate beyond what’s needed to treat the cancer. So far, the results have been very promising. Under lab conditions, the virus killed 100 percent of the cancerous cells and did not infect a single normal cell. This virus, therefore, has the potential to be an effective cancer treatment.
Needless to say, Natalie’s groundbreaking research has earned her accolades from the scientific community. At this year’s Canada-Wide Science Fair, she won many awards, including EnCana’s Best in Fair Award and a gold medal in Intermediate Health Sciences. This success, however, does not compare to the thrill she feels when she works in the lab. “The feeling of making discoveries, knowing that you may have just found something that no one else has ever known, that’s the best excitement around!” she says.
Natalie plans to become an oncologist, but in the meantime, she will continue her research, in hopes of finding a cure so that eventually no one will lose their loved ones to cancer. There would be no greater reward—personally and professionally.