Few high school students get the opportunity to learn about cutting-edge science directly from the scientists who are conducting it. Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Major Trends in Modern Cancer Research seminar was created to give students from the New York City area, along with their teachers, this chance.
“One thing that makes science unique is that great ideas do not necessarily come from those with the most experience,” says cancer biologist Richard M. White, one of the speakers at the event. “It is incredibly important to engage high school students in these problems, since in my experience they are just as likely to have an important idea or question as someone further along in their career path.”
For the second time, this annual seminar will also be available as a live webcast for viewers from around the nation and the world. Now in its eighth year, the program was designed to foster young people’s enthusiasm for science and medicine.
More than 400 people are scheduled to attend the seminar at Memorial Sloan Kettering’s main campus on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Dr. Abdel-Wahab will talk about “The Cancer Epigenome: Biology’s New Frontier.” The epigenome refers to chemical changes in a cell’s DNA that do not alter the genetic code but can have an impact on how genes are regulated.
“Recently, a large number of studies to understand the genetic causes of cancer have uncovered frequent alterations in genes that function to regulate the epigenome,” Dr. Abdel-Wahab says. “It is now becoming very clear that the state of the epigenome is critical to cancer development and progression. Moreover, many new drugs are in development that target proteins regulating the epigenome in cancer cells.”
“During my talk, I’ll present striking examples of how the epigenome can be dysregulated in cancer development as well as how it can be targeted by anticancer drugs,” he adds. “I also hope to impart how exciting many avenues of cancer research are and that research is critical to understanding and treating cancer. Cancer research and the clinical care of cancer patients are very intertwined. Ultimately, I hope to motivate these students to seek opportunities to be involved in cancer research early in their professional development.”
Dr. Foley’s talk is called “Travels on the Bi-Orient Express: Cell Division in Normal Cells and in Cancer.” Her research is focused on understanding the nuts and bolts of mitosis — how one cell divides into two. This is important for the study of cancer because a common hallmark of the disease is uncontrolled cell proliferation: Cancer cells divide more frequently than normal cells, and when they divide they often make mistakes in how they distribute the cell’s DNA into the two daughter cells.
“Prior to every cell division, a cell copies each of its 23 pairs of chromosomes,” Dr. Foley explains. “During mitosis, each pair of replicated chromosomes is ‘gathered up’ in the middle of the cell through attachments between chromosomes and a molecular machine called the mitotic spindle that assembles during mitosis and powers chromosome movement into the two daughter cells. In my talk, I’ll discuss our efforts to understand, at the molecular level, how chromosomes establish connections to the mitotic spindle and how these connections are defective in cancer cells.”
“I’m excited about this opportunity to speak because when I was in high school, I had some unique opportunities to meet ‘real’ scientists, and it had a large influence on my interest to pursue this career path,” she says. “I hope to share the idea that processes that may come across as cut-and-dried in high school textbooks are in fact still deeply mysterious and fundamentally fascinating.”
Dr. White will talk about “Making Cancer Transparent: Studying Cancer in Fish from Beginning to End.” His laboratory uses zebrafish as an animal model for studying metastasis, particularly in melanomaskin cancer and pancreatic cancer.
“Cancer is not a disease of isolated cells or genes. When cancer cells spread to the entire body, they affect nearly every organ,” Dr. White says. “For this reason, I decided to study cancer using the zebrafish, an animal that is small in size, develops cancer, and is optically transparent. What we learn in fish provides a framework for how this happens in humans, and our work has translated remarkably well to human disease.”
“I became involved in research when I was 15, and that experience provided tremendous guidance to what I would do later in my career,” he adds. “I hope this event will give current students that same opportunity to be fascinated by science and feel like they have something important to contribute.”
Dr. White is an Assistant Member in the Cancer Biology and Genetics Program of the Sloan Kettering Institute and also holds a clinical appointment on the Gastrointestinal Oncology Service.