Fighting an Infection with an Infection: Using Herpes to Treat Cancer

herpes fighting cancer.jpeg

My students recently came across this article in their search for new cancer treatments. I mean, how cool is this?! They’re putting a vector on a herpes virus and then injecting it into the tumor. The virus infects the cancer cells, causing them to burst just from being virally infected, but the vector in the virus also stimulates the immune system to kill the cancer cells, so it’s like a 2-pronged attack. Amazing.

Part of what I also find fascinating about scientific ideas though is the way they’re portrayed and to what audience–my students (in 3 different groups) found 3 different sources for this, all of which have different target audiences.

  1. For everyone: an article in The Guardian
  2. For people seeking science knowledge: an article on Popular Science
  3. For scientists seeking science knowledge: the article from Nature

Teaching Cancer is Exhausting

Today I came home and I was just dead on my feet. And I was thinking about why that was, and I just didn’t get it–my lessons were normal, there were no huge labs, I was in the office, I had some frees… what was different? The content.

Teaching cancer is exhausting. And it’s not that we have super amounts of activities–in my one class, they did a cool introduction to the hallmarks activity, and in the other they researched cancer treatments, but I think what’s exhausting about it is being so emotionally aware all the time–students ask me a lot of personal questions, and it’s so hard to be sensitive to where they’re coming from, and to be truthful, and to not insert my own opinions or stories into the matter.

We were talking about how you get cancer, or rather, how you get the mutations in your cells that can lead to cancer, and someone mentioned radiation, so we were talking about where radiation came from–the sun, X-rays, and some cancer therapies, and then someone said the killer, “But wait a second–if we’re using radiation to cure cancer, wouldn’t that just make more cancer?” And those are the times that I’m left speechless because yes, there is a potential to cause more cancer, but also no–sometimes radiation is the best treatment option. It’s just so hard with a topic that comes so close to home. For everyone.

Then while we were having that radiation conversation, someone mentioned that radiation on your skin could cause melanoma, and then I let it slip that someone close to me had recently died of it. And all of a sudden, I had this rush of emotions, and I was thinking about my friend, and I was on the verge of tears, and there I was in front of the whole class.

“I’m sorry. I love my train of thought.” And then in those couple of milliseconds I felt so… exposed. Because just then they weren’t talking, and they weren’t zoned out, and they weren’t doing whatever else they normally do–they were 100% watching me pull myself together.

It’s very…it feels soul bearing when that happens in front of the kids. Normally I’m Miss S and I laugh and joke about and have everything under control. But when that falls apart and they see something other than their happy teacher, it’s very jarring because it’s no longer part of “the act”–I’m no longer a teacher, but a person. And THAT they pay attention to.


On Teaching Cancer

types of cancer

Cancer is one of my favorite units to teach. That may sound strange, but here’s the thing: nearly every student that I have has some kind of connection to someone who has/had some form of cancer, and everyone can relate to it. My first year teaching, I had each student choose a type of cancer an do a mini-project on it, and one student wrote “RIP Aunt _____” at the very end of his breast cancer presentation. *here’s where my heart breaks*

But nearly no one knows anything about it. And so I love teaching this unit because it is so personal.

The only hard part about it is trying to figure out where to go with it–should I talk about the types of cancer? The treatments for it? How cancer works? All of the above? This year, I’m lucky enough to have 2 days for it, so here’s my plan:

Day 1:

  1. Cell Cycle 101
    1. Notes: What is the cell cycle? What are the stages in it? What do the checkpoints in the different stages do?
  2. Cell Cycle POGIL
  3. Class Discussion: What happens when one of the checkpoints in the cell cycle mutates? What if it doesn’t work?
    1. Cancer
  4. Cancer 101
    1. Class Discussion: what they already know about cancer/what cancer actually is (abnormal growth of cells)/how we get cancer (mutations in the cell cycle)
    2. Reading from The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (p.216): “‘Some war,’ he said dismissively. ‘What an I at war with? My cancer. And what is my cancer? My cancer is me. The tumors are made of me. They’re made of me as surely as my brain and my heart are made of me. It’s a civil war, Hazel Grace, with a predetermined winner.”
  5. Mini-research activity: Students will go online and find the answers to the following questions:
    1. What causes cancer?
    2. What are the most common types of cancer?
    3. What are the most lethal (deadly) cancers nowadays? for men? for women?
    4. Find one novel research technique that we’re using to treat cancer (can’t be chemotherapy!)
  6. Homework: Read pgs. 128-129 in the textbook and answer the following questions
    1. What causes a normal cell to be converted to a cancer cell?
    2. What is the difference between a benign tumor and a malignant tumor?
    3. When do you have cancer?
    4. What is metastasis?
    5. What are the 3 ways that we currently treat cancer? Give an example of each.

Day 2:

  1. Starter: Look up and define “metastasis,” and “apoptosis.”
  2. Review Homework in a Class Discussion:
    1. what is cancer? how does it work? how are we currently treating it?
  3. evolution and cancer
    1. first students will do the WebQuest on the hallmarks of cancer
    2. secondly, they will do the simulation in which they are the cells and they acquire mutations over their “lifetimes” and then they see how the mutations build up over time to develop into a cancerous cell

Just as a side note, I’m really excited about this Evolution and Cancer activity. I’m hoping they get to see that a cell can have many mutations over its lifetime, and only when it has certain mutations or when it has too many does it become cancerous.

We’ll see how this goes!