Program Pairs Middle Schoolers with James Experts for Cancer Science Q&A

Roychowdhury Speaks at Middle School

An inquisitive mind seems to be a necessary ingredient for a career as a cancer scientist.

If this is the case, in a decade or more, there could be a disproportionate number of students from the current sixth-grade class at Shanahan Middle School in Lewis Center working at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James), and other leading cancer centers.

“Wow, they sure asked a lot of questions, and some really tough ones,” said Sameek Roychowdhury, MD, PhD, Dept. of Internal Medicine, Division of Medical Oncology, at the OSUCCC – James. He is a national leader in cancer genetics and precision medicine.

The questions came at a fast and furious pace, and with a lot of enthusiasm and raised, waving hands. For example:

“How do you get your DNA?”

“You’re a combination of your mother and your dad,” Dr. Roychowdhury answered. “Their DNA mixes together, 50-50 from each.”

“Why are people with cancer bald? Is it from the cancer?”

“It’s not the cancer. Some of the cancer treatments that attack the cancer cells have side effects. They can affect the follicles in the hair.”

Not even an unexpected fire drill could slow down the questions. The Shanahan students filed out of their classrooms, gathered outside in circles by class and continued to ask cancer-related questions…

“How does too much sun cause skin cancer?”

“The ultraviolet light can damage the DNA and lead to genetic changes that can increase the risk of cancer,” Dr. Roychowdhury said.

Dr. Roychowdhury and Amy Smith, MT (ASCP), the lead clinical lab technologist in the Roychowdhury Lab at the OSUCCC – James, recently spent a few hours at Shanahan, where they introduced the basics of cancer genetics and precision medicine to inquisitive sixth graders during a series of four presentations.

It was part of the Cells Research Project that all the sixth graders at Shanahan are currently immersed in.

“This project focuses on cells, with the driving question: How do cells impact human life,” said Phil Hardymon, a Shanahan science teacher.

Small teams of students will put together pamphlets on their areas of cell research and produce public service announcements (PSA) on the cell topics. “We’re going to create a gallery of videos,” Hardymon said of the PSAs.

Having Dr. Roychowdhury and Smith, as well as other scientists and researchers from a variety of scientific disciplines, come and talk to students, “provides the students with real-world experiences and connects what they learn in the classroom with what’s going on in the real world,” Hardymon said.

The most common cell-related topic the teams of students have selected to study is cancer, he said, followed by cloning, genetic modification and bacteria.

“We research genes,” Dr. Roychowdhury said as he described what his lab does and the basics of precision cancer medicine. “Genes can make a mistake, that can lead to a mutation and to health problems. Our team studies these genetic changes and mutations that can cause cancer, and then we help patients.”

He explained the basics of DNA and how “it tells your cells how to communicate with each other and what to do,” adding that cancer occurs when “cells multiply out of control and go places they aren’t supposed to go and cause trouble.”

DNA comprises more than 6 billion chemical bases, or “letters”: A, G, C and T. Every time a cell divides, each and every one of these four letters must be duplicated in the exact same sequence.

“Mistakes can happen – even a one-letter difference is a mistake,” Dr. Roychowdhury explained, adding that these mistakes can sometimes create the genetic mutations that lead to increased cancer risk.

“Are there really letters inside your cells?” someone asked.

“The letters are abbreviations for the molecules that make up your DNA,” Dr. Roychowdhury said of adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T).

“Does a rock have cells?”

“Cells are biological, so no, rocks have a different composition.”

“Can a plant’s cells get cancer?”

“Technically, they can,” Dr. Roychowdhury said.

Smith described how the lab breaks open cells from cancerous tumors to extract DNA and attach the samples to a series of slides. A sequencing instrument then analyzes and reads the letters and identifies any mistakes in the coding.

“Each letter lights up in a different color and the computer can read each letter and sequences them quickly,” she explained.

“How long does it take?” someone asked.

“About 18 hours,” Smith answered.

“What’s a tumor?”

“It’s when a bunch of cells grow together and form a mass,” Smith said.

Cancer impacts everyone, even sixth-grade students. A couple of the Shanahan students said they had relatives with cancer, others said a parent was a Pelotonia rider.

“How many people get cancer, and can it be solved?” someone asked.

“About 3 million people a year (in the United States) are diagnosed with cancer out of about 350 million,” Dr. Roychowdhury said. “Solving it depends on what type of cancer and where it is.”

All the students knew smoking causes lung cancer. But how? Why?

“The inhaled smoke causes changes in the DNA in the lungs,” Dr. Roychowdhury said.

“How do you prevent cancer?”

“Put on sunblock and wear long sleeves and a hat… and don’t smoke!” Dr. Roychowdhury said. “And being overweight is also a risk factor, so make sure to exercise and eat healthy foods.”

Judging by the student’s thirst for knowledge, the new Cells Research Project is a success.

“The goal is to motivate them,” Hardymon said. “The future is science, and we want to prepare them for careers and for the opportunities they’ll face.”