Fresh Faces, New Energy: Isaac Harris, Ph.D.

Oct. 1, 2020
Isaac Harris, Ph.D.

An assistant professor of Biomedical Genetics, Isaac Harris, Ph.D., wears a tattoo on his arm as a reminder of the way he wants to fight cancer. It shows a lumberjack sharpening his axe, symbolizing for Harris that researchers must not only work hard, but work smart. His urgency to “crack the code of how cancer cells stay alive” became even greater when, about a year ago, a close friend died of breast cancer at age 34.

A native of Ottawa, Canada, with undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Toronto, Harris trained as a post-doc at Harvard Medical School and decided on an uncommon path to investigate breast cancer. He studies antioxidants — but not in terms of eating a plant-based diet or taking supplements to stay healthy. Rather, he looks at the way cancer cells make their own antioxidants and rely on them as defense mechanisms to grow and resist treatment. The good-guy antioxidants, he says, can be bad guys in certain molecular settings.

He also conducts sophisticated laboratory tests using the latest technology on potential treatments. He’s focused on the most destructive form of breast cancer, known as triple-negative disease, and how to block the way these tumors use antioxidants to survive. Few others are doing this type of work, and Harris was encouraged by mentors in Toronto and Boston to run with the opportunity.

Just like that sharp axe, his perspective on science is pointed: “We have a lot of work to do. We have to hustle. There’s no room for egos and bureaucracy... We need to be asking very big questions and making big discoveries.”