Teaching About the Cell Cycle, Immune System, and Cancer Using BioInteractive Resources
It seems that every other TV commercial these days is about a new medication that can treat arthritis, or psoriasis, or lower our A1C — but there are also some that are about drugs used to treat cancer. Many of these are immunotherapies, treatments that use the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. Often, these immunotherapies work by interfering with the way cancer cells communicate with each other or by increasing immune cells’ ability to target cancer cells.
Because I’m always looking to give my students a reason to care about what they are learning, the medical treatments in these commercials struck me as an engaging way students could learn about the cell cycle, cell communication, and the immune system. Fortunately, BioInteractive has many resources for teaching about cancer, including an Immune System Click & Learn that provides an overview of the immune system and also incorporates various immunotherapies.
Getting students engaged in learning about the cell cycle can be difficult. During my 25 years of teaching, I taught high school biology to general, honors, and AP Biology students, and I have also taught undergraduate introductory biology. Earlier in my career, I taught this topic by introducing mitosis, sometimes followed by meiosis. Students looked at dividing cells under the microscope and memorized the steps of mitosis. I quizzed them on how well they could identify those steps, and then we moved on to discussing cell cycle control. To finish the unit, I gave them a practical application of what happens when cell division goes wrong and introduced the concept of cancer as a disruption in the cell cycle. Down the road a bit further, we covered cell communication as a separate topic. But I felt like my students weren’t able to connect these ideas together and that they were not seeing the big picture.
Now, instead of starting with mitosis, I use cancer as an anchoring phenomenon to begin, not end, my unit. I start by showing the Cancer and Cell Fate in the Intestinal Epithelium animation and asking students to think about questions they have as they watch. I want students to ask their own questions because they’re motivated to understand how and why cells divide. Typical student questions include: Why are the cells dividing too fast? How do they know to divide? Why are there different types of cells?
Students then examine the Data Point “Cell Division and Cancer Risk” about the rate of cell division and the lifetime risk of various types of cancer. They figure out that the more times a stem cell divides, the greater the lifetime risk for cancer. In the process, they are using the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) science practice of analyzing and interpreting data.
Because we started the unit with an example of cancer, students wonder how the rate of cell division is usually controlled. They explore this question using the Click & Learn The Eukaryotic Cell Cycle and Cancer, which includes information about the phases of the cell cycle, the role genes play in its regulation, and how mutations can disrupt the rate of cell division.
Once students have learned about the phases of the cell cycle, they move on to learning about mitosis. Unlike how I previously taught this unit, I’m not concerned about whether students can identify the steps of mitosis. Rather, I ask them to concentrate on how genetic material is divided equally between the cells and whether the cells will be genetically the same or different. This can be done with simple modeling activities, such as using pop beads or yarn to represent chromosomes.
Once students have learned about how the cell cycle is usually controlled and that mutations can change the rate of cell division, we learn about the genes that control the cell cycle by watching the Mutations in Cancer video. For my introductory high school students, I might just show a clip from 1:30–3:30, which introduces the types of genes that are mutated in cancer. For upper-level high school courses, such as AP Biology, or for undergraduate students, I would show the entire video to give more specific information about how and at what points the various types of genes affect the cell cycle. So now, students have figured out that cancer is a disruption in the regulation of the genes that control the cell cycle.
I follow this video with the “Classifying Cancer Genes and Examining Patient Data” activity. During this activity, students discover that not all cancers have the same genetic profile and that it takes multiple mutations to cause a cell to lose control of the cell cycle. Throughout this activity, students use the science practices of data analysis and interpretation, obtaining and using information, and modeling.
Students often wonder why cancer isn’t even more prevalent than it already is, given that there are so many cells in the human body and that environmental factors can lead to mutations. One reason for this is that one of the immune system’s many functions is to kill cancer cells. This is where I introduce the Immune System Click & Learn.
The Immune System Click & Learn is packed with great information. It has sections dealing with the anatomy and cells of the immune system, the innate versus adaptive response, and vaccines, along with an extensive glossary. Additionally, the accompanying “Educator Materials” include tips on different ways to approach teaching it. There are three separate worksheets, each with different learning outcomes, so teaching about the immune system can be approached in different ways depending on the class being taught and/or the level of the students. For example, the “General Immunology” worksheet could be used if the goal is to teach about anatomy and physiology, whereas the other two worksheets focus on immunotherapy and vaccines.
The immune system is also a practical example of cell communication and cell signaling, so I use the “Immunotherapy” worksheet to link the cancer lessons to the immune system in an applicable way. This worksheet details anatomy related to immune system cells, as well as the primary and secondary immune responses. It also contains a section about how vaccines affect the primary immune response and has students predict how the immune system will respond to a pathogen after vaccination.
The “Immunotherapy” worksheet focuses more on the immune cells that actually target cancer cells and how these immune cells naturally destroy the cancer cells. The last section of the worksheet features a specific immunotherapy for treating prostate cancer. During this treatment, doctors remove dendritic cells from the patient, add a prostate-cancer-specific antigen to those cells, then infuse them back into the patient’s body. As a result, the patient’s T cells begin to recognize prostate cancer cells and develop an immune response to those cells. Not only is this an example of cell communication, but it also demonstrates to students how understanding biological concepts and processes can be used to solve problems. This is only one type of medical treatment involving the immune system; the third worksheet provides a possible extension activity where the students can research vaccines.
By the end of this unit, students have figured out that cancer is a suite of diseases in which mutations disrupt the cell cycle. They have discovered that in cancer, the rate of mitosis is sped up. They have learned that the immune system participates in keeping cancer cells in check, and they do this by communicating with each other locally and over long distances.
Having my students engage in the science practices has been more effective in the long run than just having them memorize the steps of mitosis, which they will forget once the test is over. Students are figuring out for themselves why it's important to learn about the cell cycle and cell communication. Plus, it’s a great way to introduce the immune system without having to bombard them with too much information. Sequencing student learning in this way makes more sense to them than having the concepts disconnected in separate chapters. I’m teaching the same objectives as before, but I’ve just sequenced them to allow students to make their own connections.
Kathy Van Hoeck taught high school biology for 25 years. Since retiring in 2017, she keeps busy teaching remotely at Saint Xavier University, consulting, writing curricula, and leading (and attending) professional development. Kathy loves traveling and spending time with family.
Mary Wuerth explains how she uses the BCR-ABL Click & Learn to teach the importance of protein structure in understanding how proteins work, and how scientists use that knowledge to design drugs to fight cancer.
David Knuffke describes how he uses BioInteractive's cancer activities in his classroom, and how they can help teach Mendelian genetics using an interactive, real-world example.
In this article, Rocky Mountain College professor Holly Basta discusses how she sequences BioInteractive cancer resources to get her students to think about big questions in how cell division is regulated — and how understanding regulation can guide drug design.