“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn,” Benjamin Franklin once said. Make that quote yours and involve your students in a real cancer-research project that will teach them more than just genetics and cell death.
Efficient cancer drugs need to selectively destroy tumour cells without harming healthy cells. Existing chemotherapy treatments have failed to reach that ideal level of selectivity, but many research teams continue to look for compounds that could become the effective and side-effect-free drugs of tomorrow.
HeLa cells are a special human cell line. They originate from a woman called Henrietta Lacks, who died from cervical cancer in 1951. Her doctor took some cells from her tumour and managed to grow them in a culture medium, developing the first human cell line. HeLa cells are the most widely used human cells in biology labs across the world.
The search for suitable compounds is performed primarily by robotic systems that quickly test and identify millions of candidate chemical compounds: they put cancer cells together with potential drugs and observe whether the cells die or survive. Such experiments generate thousands or even millions of cell images that then need to be analysed according to several parameters – such as the cell’s status, the release of cellular content, the distribution of the mitochondria, or the shape of the nucleus – and classified to determine the cell’s response to each potential drug. The ideal solution to treat this huge amount of data would be to use computers. However, they are not good enough to recognise patterns: nothing beats the human eye for that task (Lostal et al, 2013a; 2013b)!
That is where you and your class step in. Researchers need help from as many volunteers as possible to support them with image analysis and to identify potential new drugs against cancer as rapidly as possible. Your students will learn about cell death by helping scientists to characterise the response of HeLa cells to different chemical compounds.
The Cell Spotting team is testing more than 14 000 chemical compounds in HeLa cells and observing their reaction using advanced optical microscopy techniques. HeLa cell cultures are being photographed every half hour in three different channels: normal light, blue and green fluorescence (Lostal et al, 2013a; 2013b). The normal light reveals the global shape of the cell membranes; the blue fluorescent channel is specifically for the observation of the cell nuclei (they are dyed with the fluorochrome Hoechst 33342, which emits blue light when bound to DNA); and the green light is for the observation of the cells’ mitochondria (which are dyed with the fluorochrome Mitotracker). By combining data acquired from the three channels, the scientists can generate images that contain detailed information about these three elements of the cells’ structure and also videos that show cell movements, division and death over time. More than 4000 images are taken per day and about 14112 images are produced in a single experiment.
This activity is designed to be implemented in biology courses for students aged between 14 and 18 years old, however you can also adapt it for other groups. It explores themes such as cell division, cell death, genetic regulation, cancer and biotechnology.
The activity is divided into two parts:
A) Explore the Cell Spotting research project and understand its context, and
B) Play with the Cell Spotting application.
The resources available for this activity are:
A) Explore the Cell Spotting research project and understand its context.
In the first part of the activity, students should use enquiry-based thinking to learn about the research project and its methodology.
1) Watch the videow1 ‘Socientize: Cell Images Experiment’ to place the activity into the right context.
2) Go through the didactic unitw2 and find the answers to the following questions:
At this stage, it may be useful to build a simple diagram like the one shown in figure 2.
3) Show your students how to differentiate between apoptosis and necrosis and to identify healthy HeLa cells from dying cells:
Now your students are ready to help José identify HeLa cell images!
|Cell nucleus||Fragmentation after condensation||Volume increase|
|Content release||No (formation of apoptotic bodies)||Yes|
B) Play with the Cell Spotting application.
The Cell Spotting applicationw4 allows you and your students to analyse HeLa cell images and send your analysis to the research team. The application interface is very intuitive, user-friendly and self-contained, so everybody can easily access and contribute. When you access the application for the first time, we recommend that you follow the tutorial that explains its structure, objectives and resources. This will ensure that you have all the necessary details before you log in and start spotting and tagging cells with specific stamps.
To complete each task, you need to analyse the same image according to four parameters:
1) Ask your students to log in the application and register so their contributions do not remain anonymous.
2) Explore the application with your students and define exactly what they should do. If you have a projector, this can easily be achieved by doing a cell image analysis together while projecting it on a wall.
In a nutshell, the application includes:
The image awaiting analysis is in box B (in figure 4). Below it you can find the various stamps to tag the cells and identify their state (see point 8 on Fig. 4). You can also remove the tags individually (see point 10 on Fig. 4) or start over (see point 11 on Fig. 4). If you are not sure how to classify the cells, you can use a specific tag with a question mark (see point 9 on Fig. 4). Box C provides you with a set of examples of the patterns that need to be identified.
Box C provides you with a set of examples of the patterns that need to be identified.
Finally, below the image for analysis, you will find a progress bar with the four parameters that you need to complete for each task (see box D in figure 4). Every time you finish analysing a parameter, you must click on the arrow to the right of the progress bar so you can move to the next parameter. When the four parameters have been analysed, an icon will appear so you can finish the task. After that, a new image will automatically appear and you can start the analysis all over.
NOTE: A guide to get started with Cell Spotting is available in the teacher ’s package. The analysis is very simple and your students will probably do it easily.
3) Let your students play with the programme and contribute freely. Let them know that they can also log in from home.