Students Undertake Cancer Research at University Laboratory

Students Undertake Cancer Research at University Laboratory

Earlier this month, a group of GCSE and A level Biology students were invited to spend a day in the laboratories at the University of York.  In a joint project, funded by York Against Cancer and delivered as part of an Enthuse partnership between the University of York and STEM Learning UK, the students carried out a number of practical experiments to provide them with clues as to whether a particular ‘patient’ may be suffering from or susceptible to cancer.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) Learning UK, with an office in York, believe STEM education builds knowledge and skills that are vital for everyone, but also open up a huge range of university pathways and career routes.  They regularly organise opportunities for both primary and secondary school students to see STEM subjects in action in the ‘real world’.

This particular trip therefore had multiple aims – to help students understand the vital work that is being done in the field of cancer research and to inspire them to consider this as a possible career; to introduce them to laboratory work and the opportunities it presents; to enthuse them about STEM subjects and particularly encourage engagement with STEM both post 16 and post 18.

After an introduction to the day by the University team and a careful briefing into the work they would be undertaking, students were invited to carry out a number of experiments under the watchful eye of Dr Simon Baker.  His remit, as a Kidney Research UK Intermediate Fellow, based at the Jack Birch Unit for Molecular Carcinogenesis at the University of York, is to understand the origins of bladder cancer, focussing on the enzymes that are thought to cause the DNA damage that initiates bladder cancer.  Dr Baker and his team are therefore seeking new approaches to preventing the disease altogether as well as to its treatments.

The students’ own experiments involved using PCR (polymerase chain reaction – a fast and inexpensive technique used to copy small segments of DNA) and gel electrophoresis (a technique to separate DNA fragments according to their size) to detect a mutation in the TP53 gene.  The TP53 gene provides instructions for making a protein called tumour protein p53 and acts as a tumour suppressor (meaning it regulates cell division by keep cells from growing and dividing too fast or in an uncontrolled way, as they would with cancer).  Mutations in this gene are linked to the development of cancer and the prognosis following diagnosis.  From the results of their experiments students were asked to analyse DNA from 2 ‘patient’ blood and tumour samples to determine who carried the mutation.

Students had an amazing day and came away encouraged not only by their own abilities to carry out these experiments in a ‘live’ setting but also by the insights it gave them into laboratory work as well as the vital work that is being done into cancer research.  The responses below are typical of students’ reaction to this invaluable workshop:

I thought the trip to the University of York was a great way to learn firsthand exactly how cancer researchers develop drugs and diagnose patients. The lectures were super helpful and the staff were eager to answer any questions we had whether it was practical, or theory related. I definitely think having the opportunity to use their equipment has excited me about my possible future in science research and given me a chance to see what the career could entail. I would love to be involved in more trips/ opportunities like that in the future!
Fliss (Year 12)

I am interested in a career in medicine and found learning about the science behind cancer fascinating.  A big thanks to all at the University who looked after us so well.
Phoebe (Year 10)

The experience has boosted my confidence and convinced me to want to take A-Level Biology.
Jessie (Year 10)

We would like to thank everyone who made this trip possible for our students and hope there will be other similar opportunities in the future for our students through such partnership working.

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