Students Learn About Cancer Research

Article and Photos by Stephanie Mayer, ’17

According to the National Cancer Institute, 39.4 percent of men and women will have some form of cancer in their lifetimes. Cancer spreads rapidly because it bypasses natural cell death or apoptosis. This devastating disease is tricky to treat, which is why many professional organizations spend millions of dollars researching different drugs that are aimed at stopping cancer.

This statistic illustrates the relevance of cancer research and chemotherapy testing. In response to this ever-growing epidemic, St. Mary’s Dominican High School’s Biology II Honors class, led by biology teacher Janine Koenig, recreated an example of experiments used to do cancer research. They tested two new compounds that have the ability to accelerate cell death and could be possibly used as cancer fighting drugs. “If my students already understand this and are doing this research in high school,” said Koenig, “maybe they will one day be the researchers or doctors who help win the war against cancer.”

The experiment featured spectrophotometers and lysate solutions borrowed from Louisiana State University Medical Center and Ochsner Medical Center, as part of Dominican’s participation in BEST (Bioscience Enrichment for Students and Teachers) Science! The objective of BEST Science! is to advance an interest among New Orleans area high school students in biomedical research and health sciences and to ultimately stimulate further education and vocation in these areas. BEST Science! is a partnership between Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, Ochsner and local school districts.

Spectrophotometers have the ability to measure the wavelength of light that a substance absorbs. These instruments are vitally important to this type of experiment because they measure the amount of light absorbed by the Caspase3 protein, an indicator of drug effectiveness.

“It was amazing that we were able to work with this type of professional equipment, especially since this is our first year working with the spectrophotometers,” said senior Sofia Rodriguez.

Before the experiment began, the students required:

  • a negative control which were cells that have not been pre-treated
  • a positive control that has a high concentration of enzymes that are crucial to cell death
  • lysate from cells treated with the new Compounds 1 and Compound 2, as well as lysate from cells treated with the market drug and lysate from cells treated with a combination of both compounds

Before the spectrophotometer can determine the effectiveness of the compound, St. Mary’s Dominican High School senior Reice Acosta carefully adds the color substrate in order to change the color of the different compounds. The Biology II Honors class performed this experiment in order to examine a real-world example of compounds that speed up cell death.

Students transferred these cell combinations and placed them in a 24 well plate in order to be organized and observed during the experiment. Next, color substrate was added to each well, which allows a chemical reaction to occur and change the color of the substance. Students then transferred the substances to a cuvette, which is a small container used by the spectrophotometer. Finally, the protein absorbance was processed by the spectrophotometer, and the effectiveness of the drug was determined. The greater the protein’s absorbance level determines the cell death process which is important to eliminate cancer cells.


In order to determine protein absorbance, St. Mary’s Dominican High School juniors (from left) Susan Endom, Katie Mayer and Rebecca Koenig micropipette the compounds into the cuvette container. The Biology II Honors class performed the experiment in the school’s Research Laboratory. The experiment focused on testing compounds that have the possibility to induce cell death and decrease cancer.

The results of the experiment illustrated that cells treated with Compound Two produced more Caspace3 than cells treated with Compound One. The combination of the two compounds was most effective in producing the protein, but may be too toxic for even normal cells. Conducting this experiment, students applied information studied in class by using micropipettes and spectrophotometers.

“Doing this experiment really opened my eyes to how intense the process of curing cancer can get, and this was only a taste of it,” said junior Alison Dupré.

Koenig emphasized the importance of cancer research. “Understanding the mechanisms of cancer allows us to develop new weapons for the war against the disease,” she said.