MIT Massachusetts Institute of Technology

From Teenage to Old Age: How Cancer Develops Over Time

Alice Berger
Research Fellow
Laboratory of Dr. Matthew Meyerson
Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02141 USA

Tina Huang
Research Associate
Cancer Program
Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT 
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02141 USA

Luc de Waal
Graduate Student
Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT & Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02141 USA

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

Lesson vetted and approved by CPALMS

This lesson focuses on: how cancer is caused by mutations that accumulate over time in cells’ DNA, how the genes mutated in cancer are involved in normal cell growth & division, and how different types of mutations affect the functions of these genes. We recommend that this lesson be the first 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. 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:

  • Students do an activity with a “mutation mat” (which is much like a bingo board) that shows how mutations accumulate in cells over time. This activity demonstrates why cancer is a disease of old age, because the more years that pass, the higher the chance that enough mutations have occurred in the relevant genes in a single cell, to cause it to become a cancer cell.
  • Students complete a worksheet about various examples of “mutations” that could affect a steam engine train and cause it to barrel out of control (for example: if the train’s brakes aren’t working, or if the coal shovelers are shoveling too quickly). 

The lesson ends with two additional discussion topics: how a person can be pre-disposed to cancer if he/she inherits a mutation from his/her parents; and how different tissues in the body get exposed to different mutagens, thus causing different types of cancer.

Alice Berger earned her Bachelors of Science in Chemistry from the University of Virginia, before completing a Ph.D. in 2011 at Cornell University’s Weill Graduate School of Medical Sciences. Her Ph.D. research – which was in the field of cancer biology – was performed in the laboratory of Dr. Pier Paolo Pandolfi, based first at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and later at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Alice is now pursuing post-doctoral research at the Broad Institute in the laboratory of Dr. Matthew Meyerson, in the field of lung adenocarcinoma genomics.

Tina Huang graduated in 2011 from Wellesley College with a degree in Biology. Since graduation, Tina has been working at the Broad Institute's Cancer Program, in Dr. Todd Golub's lab.

Luc de Waal is a PhD student at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, in the laboratory of M.D. PhD Matthew Meyerson. He joined Matthew Meyerson's lab after obtaining his undergraduate and Masters degrees, both in biomedical sciences, in the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands. His current research focuses on small cell lung cancer. Luc is working both to identify genes required for growth of these lung cancer cells, and to develop and characterize small molecules that may act to inhibit these genes.

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