MIT Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Making It Personal: Using DNA to Tailor Cancer Treatments

Juliann Chmielecki
Research Fellow
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute & Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02141 USA

Melanie Donahue
Research Associate, Cancer Program
Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02141 USA

Rachel G. Liao
Candidate for PhD, Biological Sciences in Public Health
Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138 USA

Megan E. Rokop
Educational Outreach Program Director
Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard

This lesson focuses on different anti-cancer drugs, including chemotherapy and targeted therapies. The lesson emphasizes on how laboratory research can be used to determine which mutations have occurred in the DNA of the cancer cells, and how these findings can impact the treatments chosen for different cancer patients. We recommend that this lesson be the second BLOSSOMS lesson on cancer, that the students use, from the series of three cancer lessons made by scientists at the Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard (i.e. after using the lesson “From teenage to old age: How cancer develops over time”).  

It would be helpful if the students already knew basic information about DNA structure & function, and how mutations can affect the RNA & protein encoded by this DNA. Only paper and writing utensils, and the ability to print out or display the provided handouts, are necessary to complete this lesson. This lesson is intended to take one or two class periods. The two most central hands-on activities in the lesson are as follows: 

  1. The students are introduced to an analogy of a cancer cell, namely, a kitchen with multiple appliances. In each version of this kitchen, one appliance is spiraling out of control.  The students are asked which treatments would work for which out-of-control kitchens; their choices include treatments analogous to targeted therapies, and to chemotherapy. 
  2. Students will receive information about three lung cancer patients with the same general category of cancer. The students will receive 3 different types of data obtained from each cancer patient (images of the cells, images of the chromosomes, and DNA sequences of two specific genes), which they will analyze in order to determine which mutation exists in each patient. With this knowledge, they will then suggest the best treatment for each patient.

Juliann Chmielecki earned her PhD from Weill Cornell Medical College and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute in New York City, and her research during that time focused on cancer biology. Currently Juliann is pursuing post-doctoral work at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, where she is pursuing studies in the field of cancer genomics.

Melanie Donahue is a Research Associate in the Cancer Program at the Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard, a biomedical research institute located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Melanie earned her B.S. in biology and biotechnology with the Class of 2011 at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. She is currently working within the Connectivity Map project at the Broad Institute, while preparing to pursue a higher degree in medicine.

Rachel Liao is a PhD candidate in the biological sciences at Harvard University. She holds an appointment as a graduate research assistant at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, an independent biomedical research institute located on MIT's campus. Rachel earned her bachelor's degree in biology at Wheaton College in Illinois, and since coming to Harvard, has had the opportunity to study lung cancer genomics in Matthew Meyerson's laboratory.

Megan Rokop is the Director of the Educational Outreach Program at the Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard, a biomedical research institute located on the MIT campus. Megan earned her Ph.D. in biology at MIT, and has taught biology both to high school students in the Boston area, and to undergraduate students at MIT.

The project described was supported by Grant Number U54CA112962 from the National Cancer Institute. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Cancer Institute or the National Institutes of Health.

Videos of each year's Broad Institute Midsummer Nights' Science lecture series (an annual seminar series for the general public), including:

“Screening for new cancer drugs” video from the Broad Institute DNAtrium digital exhibits:

Websites describing cancer research at the Broad Institute:

The website for NCI (the institute at the NIH that focuses on cancer):

Harvard University MCB department animations on “The Biology of Cancer:”

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This Lesson is in the following clusters: DNA, Health